The image of the small cedar tree planted in a garden by Benedict XVI together with President Michel Sleiman will live on among the most vivid symbols of this courageous journey — in a difficult and dramatic context — of the man in white ( l’homme en blanc ) who encouraged all the Lebanese not to be afraid, as the title on the front page of the daily L’Orient Le Jour said. And it was the Pope himself who mentioned the symbol at the beginning of the discourse he gave at the Presidential Palace of Baabda. The Pope was welcomed here with Oriental dancing and music and was showered with bouquets and rice, while from small braziers incense rose like prayers.
Together with Maronite Patriarch Béchara Boutros Raï he had a long conversation in particular with the four main Muslim religious leaders of Lebanon. Pope Benedict wished to give each one of them a copy in Arabic of Ecclesia in Medio Oriente. The document — which resulted from the Special Assembly of the Synod for the region and which the Pope himself described as the Road Map for the next few years — reads “A Middle East without Christians, or with only a few Christians, would no longer be the Middle East, since Christians, together with other believers, are part of the distinctive identity of the region”.
This means that “all are responsible before God for one another”. And the document — that Benedict XVI signed as the first act of his journey, surrounded by the Eastern-rite Patriarchs on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross — was echoed by the Papal Discourse, which forcefully upheld the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims. This very same feast, which came into being in the East in the last years of Constantine’s long reign, gave the Pope the key to interpreting the document. The connection between Christ’s death and his Resurrection, in fact, obliges Christians to become witnesses of brotherhood with practical actions, similar to the emperor’s historic decision to grant religious freedom.
So it was that the common interpretation of the promise made to the sovereign — venerated as a saint in the Middle East — was delicately toppled in Benedict xvi’s words: the victory in the sign of the Cross is “the victory of love over hate”, which overcomes all fear. Later, in the Discourse he gave at the Presidential Palace, the Papal Message was addressed to all the Lebanese, recalling the need to return to the foundations of the human being: to his origins in the family, a place of essential formation which is often in this country a place of the coexistence of different cultures and religions.
“If we want peace, let us defend life!”, the Pope exclaimed forcefully. And he straight away reminded those present that evil is not nameless and that the devil always seeks an ally in man; even in “those wars so full of futility and horror”, which must be opposed. Education, he repeated, in religious freedom that “has a social and political dimension which is indispensable for peace!”; so that it will grow, like the little cedar which is the symbol of Lebanon.
St. Peter’s Square
Feb. 28, 2020
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