1. The Theme of our History: Being Totally Focussed on God
St Maroun, by being totally focussed upon God, achieved something no one had done before him: he converted the people of the Syrian countryside to Christianity. Even more, he inspired a number of those he had converted to go forth, over Syria and Lebanon, as monks and nuns to spread the faith.
Before St Maroun, Christianity had only spread in the cities where there were concentrations of Jews, who already understood what the Messiah was, and knew the Old Testament. In Eastern Syria, the language of the cities and of Christianity was Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic (the main language Our Lord spoke). But in Western Syria, where St Maroun was, while the people spoke Syriac, the language of the big city, Antioch, and of Christianity in that city, was Greek.
From the fact that St John Chrysostom wrote St Maroun a letter in Greek, we can infer that he probably understood Greek very well. The very short life of St Maroun by Theodoret of Korosh may hint that he was even trained as a doctor. As he was familiar with Chrysostom, he had probably been in Antioch, and so he had almost certainly learned medicine in Greek. But we can infer from his name (which means “Little Lord” in Syriac, and the fact that the local people, who were basically peasants, could communicate with him, that he was bi-lingual – able to speak in both Greek and Syriac.
St Maroun was therefore a bridge between the Christianity of the Greek speaking metropolis of Antioch, and the Syriac speaking countryside which was fertile with souls.
We his children also share in this quality of being a bridge: for the Maronites are a conduit between Western and Eastern Catholicism, between Catholic and Orthodox, and between Christian, Muslim and Druze. The Maronites are open to foreign languages but tenacious of their own. They are receptive to new ideas, but devoted to their traditions. A great deal has changed since the time of St Maroun, but the changes are according to the familiar pattern: open, learn and spread the Word of the Lord.
We know that St Maroun was a hermit, and almost certainly a priest who at some time moved to the hills of Syria, not too far from Antioch, where he lived on a hillside. He exorcised a pagan temple, making of it a church, sometime in the fourth century after the birth of Our Lord. There he lived in the open air, retiring into his hut of animal skins only in the very worst weather. He has to have died by 423, but no one can be sure exactly when, and so it is often said that he died about 410.
His disciple, Abraham the hermit, known as “the apostle of Lebanon”, converted many of the Phoenician inhabitants of the mountains of Lebanon. Many others, especially in the regions between modern Ehden, Mnaytra and Bcharre, were converted by the disciples of St Simon the Stylite.
2. What is the Maronite Church?
Even the Christians of Lebanon who had been converted by St Abraham or other disciples were not known as “Maronites”. Not yet. Contrary to what some people may imagine, St Maroun did not found a Church, not even the Maronite Church! Rather, he founded a movement of evangelisation which spread through areas of Syria and Lebanon. Within one or two generations of his death, after the Council of Chalcedon in 453, the Emperor Marcion founded a monastery called Bayt Maroun, in Syria, on the Orontes (3Assi) River, near Apamea (Afamiyah) not too far from the modern Lebanese border, to be a centre for the maintenance and dissemination of the faith of Chalcedon (the faith that Our Lord Jesus Christ was both human and divine).
“Maronites” referred to those Christians who were spiritually nourished by the monks who resided in Bayt Maroun. It was not a separate Church. The people thought of themselves as just being the Christians in that part of the world who kept the faith as taught at Chalcedon. At some later point, it is not clear when, they began to be called “Melkites”, meaning only that they followed the same faith as the king or malek of Constantinople. It does not mean that they had anything to do with what we now call the Melkite Church. This confusion is the origin of the myth that the Maronites were once Melkites.
There was tremendous conflict with Maronites and the Monophysites, who did not accept the teachings of Chalcedon. In 517, an army of Monophysites fell upon and slew some 350 Monks from the Monastery of St Maroun. We remember those martyrs on 31 July each year. The Maronites wrote to Pope Hormisdas (514-523) about the slaughter, and seeking his aid. The Pope wrote a letter to encourage the Maronites describing the Maronite martyrs as soldiers of Jesus Christ and members of his Living Body.
3. St Yuhanna (John) Maroun
The monks continued at Bayt Maroun, but it was not easy to live as true-believing Christians under the Patriarch of Antioch, for the Patriarch was often a Monophysite (meaning that he rejected the Council of Chalcedon). It was even harder after the Muslim invasions of Syria, which were completed in 638. Now, the faithful of Syria were under pressure and often persecuted by both Muslims and other Christians. When, in about 685, the monks of the monastery of Bayt Maroun were suffering intolerably, and had been cut off from the rest of the Christian world, they decided it was necessary to appoint their own Patriarch. It was, in fact, necessary, to provide the faithful with clear and strong leadership. They could no longer expect assistance from outside forces who were unable or unwilling to render aid.
The Patriarch they elected was St. Yuhanna (John) Maroun, who thus became the first Patriarch of the Maronite Church. The tradition is that he was born at Sarum near Antioch, where he studied both Syriac and Greek before becoming a monk in the monastery of Bayt Maroun. He is said to have been sent to Constantinople to pursue his studies, and then, at some point after his return, to have been consecrated bishop of Batrun in North Lebanon.
St Yuhanna led the first major Maronite immigration to Mount Lebanon, where they could live in peace and safety. They would be poor, but they would be free to live and worship God. He was known as the “Warrior Saint”, because after the Emperor Justinian II (669-711) had sent his army to destroy the monastery of Bayt Maroun, and pushed on into Lebanon, St Yuhanna commanded the men who defeated the Imperial army at Amyoun1. However, this was not achieved before Justinian had removed some 12,000 Maronites from Lebanon pursuant to an agreement with the Muslim Caliph who had himself been unable to subjugate the Maronites.
St Yuhanna Maroun first established his Patriarchal See in Samar Jubayl and then in Kfar-Hayy, where he died in about 707 and lies buried. However, his plan to find a safe haven for his people, and to help them merge with the existing population in the Lebanese mountains succeeded.
However, many of the faithful remained in Syria, looking to the monks of Bayt Maroun. More persecution followed in the course of history, and catastrophe struck when the Muslims destroyed the monastery of Bayt Maroun around the year 936. The exodus of Maronites from Syria to Lebanon had been ongoing, but now most Maronites left their lands in Syria and joined their brethren in the mountains of Lebanon. In the valleys of Lebanon, the Maronite Church continued to grow.
 Not much is known about St Yuhanna Maroun, but it is collected in Philip K. Hitti’s History of Syria including Lebanon and Palestine, 521.
Maronite Patriarchate: http://www.bkerki.org/
Vatican Website: https://w2.vatican.va/
Maronite Music: www.maronitemusic.org/