1828 – 1898
Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
Today’s memorial was first inserted into the liturgical calendar in the United States in 2004. Prior to that, today’s saint was known primarily among the Christians of Lebanon, either in their homeland or in Lebanese diaspora communities outside of the Levant. The dominant form of Catholicism in Lebanon is the Maronite Church. Maronites are united to the Bishop of Rome. The universal Church is like an umbrella under which are found different rites, or ritual forms of praying. The vast majority of the world’s Catholics pertain to the Latin Rite. But millions of other Catholics, fully members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, worship using an Eastern, or Middle Eastern, liturgy. To the casual Western observer, this liturgy can seem exotic. The Maronite liturgy, rituals, church customs, and forms of prayer are, however, of ancient origin and enrich an already diverse Church with theological fruit picked from one of Christianity’s oldest orchards.
Saint Sharbel, baptized as Youssef (Arabic for Joseph), was one of five children in a poor family from a remote village in the hills of Lebanon. They were devout Maronite Catholics and had priests and monks in their extended family. Youssef shepherded his family’s small flock of animals when he was young. Very early on, he displayed a tender devotion to the Virgin Mary and a natural disposition toward prayer. In his early twenties, he left the family home to enter a monastery. In due time he made his religious profession and took the name Sharbel (or Charbel) after a second century martyr from Antioch, a city not far from Lebanon. He then studied, was ordained a priest in 1859, and returned to his monastery to live as a strictly observant monk practicing austere mortifications. In 1875 he was granted the privilege to live as a hermit in a chapel under his monastery’s supervision and care.
And there he stayed—alone, isolated, mortified, poor, reflective, and silent—for the next twenty-three years in Christian “solitary confinement,” willingly separating himself from the world so he could more easily attach himself to Christ. He died of a stroke at the age of seventy while saying the Divine Liturgy. He slumped to the floor with the Holy Eucharist still in his hands! Saint Sharbel lived the model life of an Eastern hermit-monk in the ancient tradition of Saint Anthony of the Desert. Western monasticism is focused on community life and liturgy, common meals and spiritual reading, farming, schools, chant, and hospitality. The Eastern monastic tradition has less engagement with the world, and the monks have less contact with each other. Eastern monasteries are often perched on remote mountaintops, like an eagle, proud and alone, on the highest rock. They are inaccessible, unadvertised, and imposing. Western monasteries, on the contrary, are easily found, open their doors to every visitor, and often flower into schools and universities. Some Benedictine monasteries are embedded within bustling campuses. The different modes of life, rules, and apostolates of Eastern and Western monasticism are stark.
Although little known during his life, miracles were attributed to the intercession of Saint Sharbel soon after his death. His body was exhumed and for many decades was found to be incorrupt, although it eventually decomposed. Saint Sharbel was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1965 at a Mass at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. And in 1977 he became the first Eastern Christian to be canonized in modern times. Various Lebanese government officials attended the Mass, along with members of Saint Sharbel’s family. At the time, a proud Lebanese-American bishop described the new saint as the “Perfume of Lebanon” and as proof that the Maronite Church “is a living branch of the Catholic Church and is intimately connected with the trunk, who is Christ…” Devotion to Saint Sharbel is widespread in Eastern Christianity. In a beautiful proof of the universality of the Church, devotion to Saint Sharbel was also brought by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, where images of the pensive, hooded, mysterious looking saint are ubiquitous, and his intercession constantly sought.
Saint Sharbel, may your serene example of prayer, fasting, and mortification be an inspiration for all who do battle in the spiritual desert, all who struggle with the sins and temptations offered by the world, the flesh, and the devil. Help us to follow your unique path of holiness.
Read about Saint Sharbel: