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Catholic Heroes… St. Charbel

December 12, 2019 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Lebanon is a small country bordering both Syria and Israel on the Mediterranean coast line. It has a great diversity of religions as small as it is. There are Shiite Muslims and Sunni Muslims—who possess hostile attitudes toward each other. There are also Greek Orthodox and Maronite Christians.
They all have a common interest in a man who has worked many wonders for many persons regardless of their religious affiliation. Hence they all have a special devotion to St. Charbel.
This “Wonder Worker of Lebanon” was born on May 8, 1828 in the Lebanese village of Béka-Kafra, high in the mountains. Baptized Youssef (Joseph) Antoun Makhlouf, he was one of five children born to Antoun Zaarour Makhlouf and Brigitta Chidiac.
When Youssef was only three years old, his father died as he was returning from a temporary job in Turkey in 1831. A widow with five children, Brigitta married again, but that man soon left to become a priest, eventually serving the village parish.
Youssef was raised in a pious home and grew to love reading about the saints. He learned his first prayers at his mother’s knees. With two uncles as hermits, he also came to love that way of life.
Youssef’s major responsibility as a young boy was caring for the sheep. Each day while he stayed with the herd, he would spend most of his time in prayer before an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary that he had placed in a grotto.
The other boys his age observed Youssef’s prayer life and began calling the place where he prayed “the grotto of the saint.” The principal petition Youssef asked of our Lady was to be able to spend his life serving her divine Son.
As he matured, his yearning deepened, and thus, at the age of 23 he quietly left home. He went to Mayfouq, about 50 kilometers east of his village. After his long and arduous journey, he entered the Maronite Monastery of Our Lady.
Upon arrival, he began his training to be a monk. He even withstood his family’s repeated attempts to have him come home, once they found out where he had gone.
When Youssef had completed his first year of the novitiate, he was sent to the Monastery of St. Maron at Annaya, 15 kilometers south of Mayfouq.
In this monastery Youssef adopted the rhythm of the religious life as he learned to chant the Divine Office seven times a day. All of their liturgies were celebrated in Christ’s tongue, the Aramaic language.
Youssef also carefully studied the liturgies and strove to advance in the way of perfection. Some of Youssef’s responsibilities included baking bread, making shoes, working as a carpenter, mending and washing clothes, and farming the land.
After a year of formation, Youssef professed his solemn vows, and received the habit on November 1, 1953. He took the name Charbel in honor of a second-century saint from Antioch who was a martyr.
Next Charbel moved to the Monastery of Saints Cyprian and Justina in Kfifan, nearly 30 kilometers north of Annaya. In Kfifan he studied philosophy and theology.
After six years of studying and preparation, he was ordained a priest on July 23, 1859 in Bkerke. Bkerke, located on the Mediterranean coastline, is the episcopal see of the Maronite Church in Lebanon. After his Ordination, Fr. Charbel was sent back to the Monastery of St. Maron where he would spend the rest of his life.
Shortly after his return, his confreres noticed Charbel’s great holiness. He prayed and performed his sacred duties with utmost reverence. With great humility he carried out any task requested of him.
Soon Fr. Charbel became the channel of great wonders. When the monks were working in the fields, they could not rid themselves of a dangerous snake, although they tried many different ways to do so. Finally, they called Fr. Charbel. He quickly rose from his prayers, and went to the field where the snake was tormenting the men. He ordered it to leave and never come back. It left and never returned.
When locusts threatened the crops another time, Fr. Charbel once again ordered the pests to leave and not return. The locusts left and thus the harvest was saved.
Although Fr. Charbel quietly went about the daily routine of the monks, he still longed to be a hermit. Several times he asked his superior for permission to enter a nearby hermitage and was refused each time. Fr. Charbel was very helpful at the monastery and his superior did not want to lose him.
With patience Fr. Charbel obeyed his superior in all things and after some time, God rewarded him. When Fr. Charbel asked yet again after 16 years if he could become a hermit, the superior delayed his answer. Instead he gave Fr. Charbel a special assignment with permission to stay up as late as he needed to finish the project.
Obediently Fr. Charbel agreed to the request. First he went to the kitchen to get oil for his lamp. The servant there, intending to test Fr. Charbel’s patience, filled the lamp with water instead of oil. Since Fr. Charbel stood there in a spirit of prayer, he did not notice what the servant had done.
He thanked the servant for his kindness and took the lamp, returning to his cell. Wanting to see the reaction of the priest when he saw that he had been duped, the servant followed Fr. Charbel. Much to the servant’s astonishment, Fr. Charbel lit the water in the lamp with no trouble.
The servant was so surprised that he ran to get the superior to show him the marvel of the burning water in the lamp. The abbot, amazed at such a sight, begged, “Fr. Charbel, pray for me!”
From that moment, Fr. Charbel was given permission to become a hermit at the Hermitage of Saints Peter and Paul near a chapel under the monastery. He lived there for 23 years in seclusion until he died of a stroke on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1898.
Fr. Charbel was buried at St. Maron’s Monastery on Christmas Day. As the pallbearers prepared to carry him to his resting place, they lamented the blizzard-like conditions. However, as soon as they opened the doors, the weather cleared.
On December 5, 1965 Pope St. Paul VI beatified Fr. Charbel, saying, “May he make us understand, in a world largely fascinated by wealth and comfort, the paramount value of poverty, penance, and asceticism, to liberate the soul in its ascent to God.”
Fr. Charbel was canonized by Paul VI on October 9, 1979. Bishop Frank Zayek wrote about Fr. Charbel for this occasion, saying that Fr. Charbel was “the second St. Anthony of the Desert, the Perfume of Lebanon, the first Confessor of the East to be raised to the honor of our Aramaic Antiochian Church, and the model of spiritual values and renewal. Charbel is like a Cedar of Lebanon standing in eternal prayer, on top of a mountain.”
His feast is celebrated on July 24 in the Roman calendar. In the Maronite Rite, his feast is celebrated on the third Sunday of July.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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