Patriarch Istfan Douaihy: The Memory of the Maronites

البطريرك اسطفان الدويهي



The Venerable Istfan Douaihy was a prophet who saw that the Church has to speak to and include the people of God as they actually are, in their culture, character and diversity. For all people, everywhere, our divinely appointed aim is the same: we are made to seek union with God in heaven. But we are all different, and so the Church, as it teaches and leads us back to God, must be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22). Douiahy’s understanding was three hundred years ahead of his time. He also saw the importance of ecumenism; how vital it is to build strong links to other Christians, especially the Orthodox, and to try to come to some mutual understanding with Muslims.

As Catholics, we hold that the Church was given its mission by Jesus: “Go therefore, teach all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Mt 28:19-20)

This is why the Venerable Istfan Douaihy is heading for sainthood: he enabled the Maronite Church, an important part of the Universal Church to maintain and develop its particular charism (the grace of living its providential, God-given identity). Patriarch Douaihy’s significance in the Maronite Church is such that he can only be compared to great leaders such as St Maroun and St Yuhanna (John) Maroun.

Saint Maroun, the patron of our Maronite Church, was a hermit who started an ascetic and monastic movement which transformed the countryside of ancient western Syria from a pagan land to a Christian meadow. He died around 410. St John Maroun, a monk and our first Patriarch, led us from persecution in Syria to freedom in Lebanon, and in doing so realised our character as a people sufficiently proud in their faith to embrace humility and poverty, and to endure persecution, to create a Christian culture. He must have died after 685, but we don’t know when. Almost a thousand years were to pass when another great person answered the call to aid the Church in its time of need.

Biographical Snapshot

Douaihy was born in Ehidin on 2 August 1630 and died in 1704. In 1641, when he was 11 years old, Douaihy was sent to the Maronite College in Rome, where he studied until 1655, mastering Arabic, Syriac, Italian, Latin and Greek. While he was there, he fell blind. He attributed his remarkable cure to the intervention of Our Lady, to whom he retained a special devotion for the whole of his life. As a student, his thesis on philosophy was considered so brilliant that it was published in 1650, when he was only 20 years old. Before he left Rome in 1655, he had retrieved from the Maronite College’s library as many books bearing on the Maronites as he could.

Although he was the most brilliant of the students in Rome, he was sent to teach in children’s schools. Douaihy not only accepted this, he embraced it, teaching the children of the school of Mar Ya’qoub al-Ahbaash in Ehidin. On 25 March 1656, in Dayr Mar Sarkis Ra’as an-Nahr, Ehidin, at the age of 25, Douaihy was ordained a priest. Meanwhile, Douaihy continued his own research and writing. In 1658, he was sent to Aleppo where for five months he preached and engaged in ecumenical overtures with other Christians.

When he returned to Lebanon, he had to stay with his brother in Jaita, so difficult did the Turks make conditions in northern Lebanon. It was at this time that he wrote his Minaarat al-Aqdaas, his famous treatise on the mysteries of the Divine Liturgy. In this, as in most of his writing, he brought together in one coherent body of learning the materials which had been scattered, and but for his efforts may have been lost forever.

In 1660, at the age of 30, Douaihy was sent around Lebanon, to the Shouf, the Beqaa and the Sidon regions among others where there was a serious shortage of priests. His task was not only to preach and to teach, but also to heal community divisions. In 1661, he was made parish priest of Ardeh in northern Lebanon. In response to the demand from Aleppo, Douaihy was sent back there in 1663, where he opened a school and concentrated on teaching languages. He also preached, and defended what is distinctive in the Catholic position against the Orthodox, and explained the teaching of the two natures of Christ in answer to the Monophysites.

Douaihy was made bishop of Nicosia in Cyprus in 1668. When the Patriarch George from Beseb’el died in 1670, Douaihy was elected in his place, thus becoming Patriarch before he was yet 40 years old. He established his see at the convent of Our Lady in Wadi Qannoubine. His accession coincided with a redoubling of Ottoman oppression. The Turks were forever increasing taxes on the Maronites, and Douaihy opposed them in the name of justice. They did not take kindly to this. As a result, on occasions he was obliged to hide in the valley caves, and eventually to flee to the monastery of Mar Challita in the Kisrwan. Douaihy himself was assaulted by Turks, but continued his work.

As Patriarch, he aimed to improve relations with other Christians and with Muslims. This was a difficult work, and involved him in diplomatic negotiations with European powers (especially France and the Papacy), in an attempt to put pressure on the Ottomans to ease their persecution of Christians.

Of great significance is how, with three other men, all monks from Aleppo, he refounded the Lebanese Maronite Order of Monks. When he returned to Lebanon from Aleppo, he brought with him a new organization of the monastic life, new standards, a new spirit, and unity. The Lebanese Maronite Order as we know it today sprang from his work.

As we have mentioned, Douaihy had a great veneration for Our Lady. When a plague was devastating Tripoli and its region, Douaihy, bearing an icon of Our Lady, led a procession from the Church Saydit Zgharta. The epidemic left Zgharta unscathed. The deliverance of the Christians was seen as miraculous, and attributed to the Blessed Virgin’s intercession.

But his most important efforts were actually in respect of relations between the Maronite Church and Rome. He was pleased that the Maronites benefitted from contact with Rome, but he saw that if we sacrifice our own Antiochian and Syriac heritage, the contact would not, in the long run, be to our benefit. There was a critical question as to where to draw the line between the receiving the influence of Rome and wholesale adoption of its ways. Many could not, and perhaps even still cannot see the problem. The Venerable Istfan Douaihy not only saw that the seeds of future disintegration had been sown, he also saw the solution: a significant part of his work was to de-Latinise Maronite liturgy where it had strayed too far from its proper integral nature.

Douaihy realised that the very fact that the Maronite College in Rome had been so successful laid the ground for this problem: its graduates, prime candidates for Episcopal appointments, were schooled to Latin practices by second nature. But rather than cease to benefit from the College, Douaihy sent even more young men to Rome to train for the priesthood: however, he brought them back to the Middle East to teach their fellow Maronites how to enrich their Church with the discipline and forethought of the Romans.

Part of Douaihy’s strategy was to set out the content and the basis of the Maronite traditions, as best he could. To this end, he wrote at least 44 works of theology, philosophy, history, linguistics, and made translations of key texts. More than this, he aimed to provide the Church with some structure, importing Western ways where the thought they could be useful without being destructive of good Maronite practices.

What he could not do, however, was stop the persecution of the Maronites and other Christians of Lebanon. His efforts to try and broker civil tolerance were not successful. In fact, they attracted to him the unwelcome attention of the Ottomans. The Turks even forced him to leave the Kisrwan, in 1704. However, back in Qannoubine, weakened by the difficulties of hard travel in Lebanon, he fell seriously ill, and died.

The cause of his canonisation commenced in 1982. The first concrete step was taken when the Congregation for the Causes of Saints declared him “Servant of God”. On 3 July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI authorised the Congregation to draw up a decree concerning his heroic virtues. We can now refer to him as “Venerable”.

Saintliness and Significance

Why do we say that Douaihy was a man of saintly qualities? It is not just because he was an expert on liturgy, a learned historian and an amateur scientist. It is not even because he was a Patriarch. It is true that he was considered to be a holy man while he was alive, and it’s also true that miracles have been reliably attributed to his intercession. But there is more than this.

I think that the chief sign of his sainthood lies in his work of re-establishing the Church as a witness to God and a school for holiness. We can easily forget that the aim of the Church is to make saints out of people, to increase holiness: “It is written: you shall be holy, for I am holy”, 1 Peter 1:16 (see also Dt 11:44 and 46; 20:26; and 21:8).

He preserved the identity of the Maronite Church as an Eastern Church, with its own apostolic traditions which are suited to the character and culture of its people, and thus able to reach them directly and completely. So far-ranging was his work, and such have been the ravages of time, that we can say that but for his efforts, much material which is critical for the Maronite tradition would have disappeared. In fact, even some of the documents he used have subsequently been lost.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Douaihy is the memory of the Maronites, and that his work forms a major part of the documentary foundation of our faith, and thus of our heritage.

There are more lessons to learn from his life. That Douaihy returned to Lebanon is important. Many who went to the Maronite College in Rome never did return to live in Lebanon. But despite the glittering future of celebrity, advancement and safety which the splendid city of Rome held in promise for him, Douaihy returned to his people, to the poverty and oppression of a life lived beneath the heel of the Muslim occupation. In understanding the need for priests to return to their original homes and preserve and promote the rites of their own Churches, Douaihy anticipated what Vatican II would say three hundred years later.

This ecumenism is another area where Douaihy was in advance of the times. At a time when the Latin Church was by and large hostile to all traditions but its own, the Maronites were used to, and understood the importance of living with other Christians. Even today in North Lebanon, there remain churches divided into two sides for the two Christians who shared the Church, one side being for the Jacobites and one for the Maronites. In Hardine, for example, one can see the Church of St George and St Edna, separated only by a low doorway. Douaihy perceived that what was appropriate in Italy would not work in the Levant, where it was necessary that all Christians respect, support and encourage each other.

To my mind, Douaihy’s approach confirms the true nature of ecumenism. In the aftermath of Vatican II, some people zealously but mistakenly thought that ecumenism meant that doctrines of the Church could be changed so as to make a new Church which would be sufficiently identical to other Churches to be able to merge with them. Douaihy understood that “ecumenism” is almost etymologically the same as “Catholicism”: they are but two different aspects of the universalism of God’s Church. We are ourselves are Catholic (“throughout the whole”), we are the one holy apostolic Church. When we address the world outside our Church, we are ecumenical (“turned to the world”), we seek unity on the basis of the truth. There is no ground whatsoever for compromising the truth, but because truth brings peace, we seek a respectful peace with all, as Patriarch Douaihy did.

I have said that the Venerable Istfan Douaihy, a man of saintly virtues and wisdom, was the memory of the Maronite Church. I should add that he also possessed the true heart of a Maronite: he passed over a magnificent career and a comfortable life in Rome to return to his Maronite people of Ehidin and the Middle East. He served not only in Ehidin, but throughout Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus. He suffered to be with his people. He suffered to preserve their traditions and history, and describe their liturgies and sacred practices in a permanent form, despite being pursued through the land by the vicious Turks. I have spoken of his memory and his heart, but others go further, and with justice, applaud him as the Father of the modern Maronite Church.

Taken from