St. Charbel Makhlouf of Bekaa-Kafra, Lebanon – “The Wonderworker”
Born: May 8, 1828
Died: December 24, 1898
Beatified: December 6, 1965 by Pope Paul VI
Canonized: October 9, 1977 by Pope Paul VI
Feast Day: Third Sunday in July
Venerated in Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic Churches
Just a few months ago, hardly a day went by that we didn’t hear about the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East: heartbreaking stories of separation and loss – people being forced from their homes, tortured, or even killed if they didn’t renounce their faith and pledge allegiance to ISIS. But for the last several months the media has gone quiet, leading many to believe that perhaps things are better, that maybe life is even somewhat back to “normal.” But sadly this isn’t the case. A Dominican sister from Syria spoke at our parish recently and explained that the persecutions continue, that injustice and suffering is an ongoing reality for Christians living in many parts of the world.
Why do we have such a short attention span when it comes to the the trials and sufferings of others? Living in an age of instant information can be a blessing at times, allowing us to quickly respond with resources and material aid to those in need. But it can also feel overwhelming when we see that suffering played out before our very eyes, day in and day out. After a while, we begin to scroll past the stories on the Internet or simply change the channel when confronted with what seems to be endless suffering and tragedy. We want to forget that it’s even happening. And, in a certain sense, that’s a perfectly understandable response. What can we do, after all? How can we combat the evil in our world?
There aren’t any easy answers, but we must never forget that the Church consists of so much more than what we can see. The angels and saints are always with us, praying and interceding on our behalf to the Father – that “great cloud of witnesses” spoken of in Scripture.1 Of course, this doesn’t exempt us from prayer, or from working for peace and justice in the world. Whatever we can do to bring goodness, beauty, and truth to those around us is a very good thing and so very helpful. But we must never feel alone in this endeavour. The Lord is with us… He is faithful and “hears the cry of the poor.”2
One of the saints no doubt praying for the people of the Middle East is St. Charbel of Bekaa-Kafra, Lebanon. Because of his hidden life of holiness, he is considered by many to be the male counterpart of the “Little Flower,” St. Therese of Lisieux. In fact, his piety, humility, and fervour for the Eucharist have set him apart as one of the greatest saints of our times.3
Youssef Antoun Makhlouf was born on May 8, 1828 in Northern Lebanon into a devout Maronite Catholic family. He was born with a natural disposition to prayer and solitude and decided at an early age to follow in the footsteps of his uncles and become a monk. As a boy, he studied in the village and also tended his family’s herds, taking them out into the nearby hills to pasture. There, in a little grotto, he would kneel in front of an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray. This grotto became “his first altar and his first hermit[age], which became later a chapel for prayer and pilgrimage for believers.”4
His Maronite upbringing meant that his family would have attended Mass frequently and had a great devotion to Mary. The Maronites, an Eastern rite Catholic Church, profess the same Creed and celebrate the same sacraments as Roman Catholics, but have a distinct spirituality, liturgy, and theology that correspond to their origins. Located primarily in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel – a region known as the Fertile Crescent – Maronites are believed to be the “direct descendants of the people who received their faith from the Apostle Peter.”5 Thus, Maronite Catholics are in full communion with Rome, faithful to the Pope as the successor of Peter.
When Youssef was 23 years old, he left his family village and headed to Our Lady of Maifouk monastery to spend his first monastic year. From there, he entered St. Maron monastery in Annaya, where he was accepted into the Lebanese Maronite Order. He chose the name Charbel after one of the martyrs of 2nd century Antioch. During his 16 years at St. Maron monastery, Charbel performed his priestly ministry and his monastic duties “in an edifying way,” totally dedicating himself to Christ with an “undivided heart.”6 He found this way of life so agreeable that he requested permission to live as a hermit and moved to the St. Peter and Paul hermitage in 1875.
For 23 years, Charbel lived a life of solitude and total abandonment to God. As unusual as it may sound to us today, he was perfectly content and at peace. He had discovered his vocation: to pray for the needs of the world. In his book Three Lights from the East, Fr. Mansour Awad describes this time so beautifully: “Charbel’s companions in the hermitage were the Son of God, as encountered in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist, and the Blessed Mother. The Eucharist became the center of his life. He consumed the Bread of Life and was consumed by it. Though he did not have a place in the world, the world had a great place in his heart. Through prayer and penance he offered himself as a sacrifice so that the world would return to God.”7
On December 16, 1898, Fr. Charbel suffered a stroke and then quietly passed away just eight days later, on Christmas Eve. As with all hermits, he lived a life hidden from the world. It was only after his death that his holiness became known beyond the walls of the hermitage and the people in the surrounding villages. His superior at the hermitage described it this way:
“He sanctified the Monastery of St. Maron when he lived there; he sanctified the grounds of the monastery by the sweat of his brow for eighteen years, plowing the field day after day, except on Sundays and holy days. His work was continuous prayer. He sanctified the hermitage by the monastic life, which surpasses ordinary human capability. He sanctified the vineyard of the hermitage also, by his hard labor without every tasting of the grapes it produced. His entire life was a chain of fruitful work of soul and body. He detached himself from everything in order to dedicate himself totally to God. All his actions were performed by virtue of supernatural grace.”8
Shortly after Fr. Charbel’s death, a strange light was seen emanating from his tomb. Both monks and peasants who worked at the monastery testified to seeing it, as well as many others. The phenomenon was described as “different from ordinary lights, resembling an electric light, appearing and disappearing.” Other said it was a “brilliant light rising from the tomb and floating around the monastery, sometimes at the windows of the cell, sometimes around the windows of the church, and then back to the tomb.”9 There was even one account by a government official, a Muslim, who was out one dark night with some soldiers looking for a criminal. They reported seeing the light “in the shape of a star” and because of its brightness, they were “able to walk and see their way clearly.”10 They ended up at the monastery and woke the monks to report what they had seen.
After several months and at the urging of the faithful, the tomb was opened and investigated. Remarkably, the body was perfectly preserved and intact, not decomposed in the slightest, despite the fact that it had been buried in a common grave (meaning many monks had been buried there over the years) and that it was filled with water and mud. Upon seeing the body of the ‘saint’, the people were “extremely afraid and filled with awe.”11 Some took as relics a few hairs from his beard as a blessing for themselves and their families. Soon thereafter, numerous reports of healings and other miracles began to spread throughout the countryside. It would be some time before Charbel was declared a saint by the Church, but the people were convinced. In their minds, he was a “Wonderworker!”
Over 350 miracles are reported to have taken place over the next several years – both physical and spiritual healings. In 1950, when the monastery started keeping track of the miracles attributed to Charbel, over 1200 were recorded in just two years time. One of the questions that invariably comes to mind is: Why so many miracles after his death? Perhaps the answer is simply to demonstrate that is was truly God who worked them. Who else but God could preserve a body from the effects of death?12 More than a reward for Charbel’s saintly life, we must see it as “a call to all mankind to know God, the Father, and His only Son Who became Man, and His Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from both of Them, Who is consubstantial to Them, a call to love Him, to adore Him as one God and to thereby inherit His Kingdom.”13 St. Charbel is an example for all of us – a light for both the East and the West – to love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul.
At the closing of the Second Vatican Council, on December 5, 1965 Charbel was beatified by Pope Paul VI with these words:
“…A hermit of the Lebanese mountain is inscribed in the number of the blessed …a new eminent member of monastic sanctity has enriched, by his example and his intercession, the entire Christian people… 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…”14
– Kelley Holy
1 Hebrews 12:1
2 Contemporary hymn written by John Foley, S.J., based on Psalm 34.
3 cf. Angelus Press Publishing; description of a book on life of St. Charbel; Internet; accessed 29 June 2015; available from http://angeluspress.org/St-Charbel-Makhlouf-of-Lebanon
4 Official website of the Native House of Saint Charbel in Baakafra; Internet; accessed 22 June 2015; available from http://www.saintcharbelbaakafra.com/page.php?id=6&language=0
5 “The Story of the Maronite Catholics,” maronitemonks.org [website]; Internet; accessed 24 June 2015; available from http://maronitemonks.org/wp/story-maronite-catholics/
6 “St. Charbel,” Charbel.org – Saint Charbel, A Saint from Lebanon[website]; Internet; accessed 26 June 2015; available from http://www.charbel.org/saint/charbel/life/3lights.asp
10 Jim Dunning, “Saint Charbel – the Maronite Monk;” Mystics of the Church [website]; Internet; accessed 29 June 2015; available from http://www.mysticsofthechurch.com/2010/10/saint-charbel-sharbel-makhlouf-maronite.html
11 “St. Charbel” [website]
12 According to Joan Carroll Cruz in her book The Incorruptibles, since the time of the saint’s beatification the body is no longer incorrupt.
13 “St. Charbel” [website]
14 Pope Paul VI, Address for the Beatification of Maronite Monk Charbel Makhlouf; Internet; accessed 29 June 2015; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/fr/speeches/1965/documents/hf_p-vi_spe_19651205_charbel-makhlouf.html