By Fr Liam Kelleher
You may be wondering who St Charbel is, well I am going to recount an extraordinary sequence of events that unfolded in my life since September.
This year is the golden Jubilee of my ordination to the priesthood and I celebrated the occasion in June, with 8 functions on following nights, beginning at St Lachteen’s Church in Donoughmore where I was ordained to the priesthood on June 9, 1968. We began with Mass followed by a reception win the local hall in Stuake.
The following night we had similar occasion in Cobh, where I presently minister. Then followed Grenagh where I was parish priest for 12 years, then Whitechurch, Inch in the parish of Killeagh, Dromina, Tullylease, and finally Midleton – my first parish in Ireland, where I served from 1970-77 as chaplain to the Presentation Convent Sisters. It was a wonderful experience and I will be eternally grateful, first of all to those who attended the masses, the most important part of the celebrations and then the functions which followed afterwards and all who contributed so much to their success. A huge thank you as well to Mitch, the band leader Ashley the violinist and the members of the Two Lions band from California who provided brilliant music for all the functions and who went to many schools. The group also did two free concerts on the promenade in Cobh to the delight of the huge gathering of locals and tourists as well, on the 10th and 16th of June.
INVITE TO MEDJUGORJE
My first cousin Sheila Kelleher from Doneraile who brings groups to Medjugorje five times a year, invited me to go along in September as a guest and I gladly availed of the gift. On the first day there at dinner I was sitting next to John O’Leary from Cobh and in conversation, he happened to mention the name of St Charbel of Lebanon. I must confess that I was not familiar with the good Saint. John himself, is a rare character, all of 95 years young. The day before, he made his way from Cobh to Dublin by train, took the Luas to O’Connell St and the bus to Swords where we were staying before our early flight in the morning. Recently he featured on the Sunday night programme for an hour on C103 on that excellent programme with John Greene, ‘Where The Road Takes Me’.
Shortly after our chat I made my way down to the church to begin my 3 hours of hearing confessions. The first lady that arrived for the Sacrament was from Lebanon and I made inquiries about the Saint. I got a brief outline and we made arrangements to meet up that evening to learn more. When we did meet up as arranged, Carole told me an extraordinary story. Just a day before the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, she was visiting his shrine and she was resting at the cross when she noticed a sting of an insect near to her heart and discovered it was from a scorpion. Now scorpions are very rare in Lebanon and their sting can prove fatal in most cases. There is no antidote and as she was being rushed to hospital she told me she prayed like she had never prayed before, her friend Joelle was with her, the relic of St Charbel was placed on the spot before arriving in the hospital.
On the following day, Carole had booked a flight to Rome for the ordination to the priesthood of a friend, and after discharging herself from the hospital completely recovered, she took the morning flight to Rome for the ordination on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
That story impressed me so much that I asked her if she would speak to our group that Sheila had brought and she gladly obliged. Everybody was blessed by the relic of St Charbel. The following morning after the Mass at 10am, I met the leader of another group, Jim Sheridan, an old friend from my Midleton days in the 70s, and told him the story of the evening before and he was so excited. He told me he had a great devotion to St Charbel after hearing about him a few years before also. in Medjugorje. He had a black spot on his shoulder and a lump and was advised by the surgeon that he would need an operation. He started a novena to St Charbel and rubbed the relic to the spot.
On the day he was due to have surgery, the surgeon was dismayed because the lump and the spot had completely vanished and Jim did not need surgery. He asked me could I get my new found friend from Lebanon (Carole) to give his group a talk. I said I might not see her, with thousands of pilgrims in Medjugorje, but I did meet her and again another huge coincidence, her friend from Lebanon had arrived that day with a group of 400 pilgrims and their spiritual director Fr Marwan was with them. Joelle, her friend, did not realise that Carole was in Medjugorje. She had not been there for 6 years and lives in London and she had been with Carole when she was bitten by the scorpion. Both spoke to Jim’s group and distributed relics of St Charbel and the holy oil.
Jim had longed to go to Lebanon to say thanks for his miracle, he was advised a number of times not to go by the Department of Foreign Affairs that it was too dangerous. Again being a seasoned traveller with visits to more than 50 countries in the world on my CV, I said I would explore the possibility of making the trip. I was even more convinced that I would like to go after hearing the two girls speak to Jim’s group and being assured of their help and support.
When I arrived back home I set the process in motion and discovered that on the 22nd of each month there was a special Mass at the shrine of St Charbel. I targeted October and found the flight very expensive during that month. Direct fights from London to Beirut were fully booked and the only way it would work was by flying from Cork to London, London to Istanbul in Turkey with a long lay-over and from there to Beirut, taking all of 14 hours from London and the cost was well in excess $1,000.
Realising that the special Mass was held on the 22nd of each month, I continued my quest to make this trip a reality. Just at that time my regular travel agent had closed down and I was put in touch with Lee Travel and as luck would have it, I spoke to Sean Healy whose dad Paddy was an old friend of mine from my days in Midleton in the 70s. He sorted the details for us, a flight from Cork to London with a 2 hour window to get from terminal 2 to 5, for a flight direct to Beirut and the same time frame on return. And would you believe, at a total cost of €440.
I contacted Jim straight away and he was delighted. I booked a flight for his good wife Myra and my first cousin’s son-in-law Pat Enright from Buttevant who was very impressed with the story of St Charbel when he was in Medjugorje with us. I contacted Carole who works in her brothers jewelry shop in London and she was delighted on hearing our plans and told us she would arrange everything and go back to Lebanon for the week to be with us.
So, on Monday the 29th of November, our amazing journey into the unknown began, we arrived in Beirut at 10.30pm and Carole had a taxi waiting for us at the airport, there was one slight hitch – Jim’s case had not arrived and we discovered it was still in London. We pressed on to our destination and arrived at a quaint hotel in Annaya just a mile away from the shrine way up in the mountains, higher than Carrantwohill. There were 2 staff waiting for us and while communication was difficult, they knew that we needed a bed and while we were the only residents, that quaint but adequate hotel, was to be our home for the next four nights.
Just to assure you, the entire group of people we met, from the owner Chady and his dad, right down to the rest of the staff, were simply amazing and in all my travels, I never met such hospitable, helpful and friendly people. They went above and beyond the call of duty to be so supportive of us.
The cost each night was minimal – $25 each, meals were $5, the food was the best I have ever encountered, all so healthy, wholesome and nourishing. Anywhere we wanted to go, Chady or one of his staff, took us in his car at no cost.
Our first morning after breakfast, we decided to visit the hermitage of St Charbel, where he spent much of his life as a hermit and then we went to his shrine where he is buried – about 2 kms away.
The crypt where he lies was fascinating and the whole atmosphere of its surroundings was so peaceful and conducive to prayer. We were brought back to our hotel for dinner, with a variety of foods. When we arrived back, I saw a colleague leaving and I asked him would it be possible to say Mass in the crypt, he said he would arrange it for the following day, which he did and Carole and Joelle arrived for the Mass.
The clergyman was visiting the monastery from Rome and he was acquainted with another colleague of mine, a native of Donoughmore whose dad Niall was in school with me – Fr Joe Murphy who celebrated his silver jubilee this year and he is head of one of the most prestigious diplomatic departments, head of protocol in Rome. It’s a small world!
On Tuesday evening, Chady brought us to what is reported as the oldest city in the world Byblos, and he conducted us on a personal tour of this charming city for two hours. He lives in that city, but arranged a taxi for us to bring us on the hour journey back to the hotel.
Day one had ended on a perfect note and we wondered how could we better it. But we did and virtually on each subsequent day, it was as if St Charbel had a special plan for us.
Wednesday we were so excited to be able to offer Mass at the saint’s crypt and again the staff were so helpful. The Mass is significantly different as a part of the Maronite rite, they are in union with Rome, but have their own unique liturgies. It was difficult enough to follow the Mass even though I was provided with English translation but it mattered little. We were in a holy and spotless place at the tomb of St Charbel.
We returned to the hotel for an extra special lunch, hosted by Chady and what a spread with at least 8 courses of different exotic foods. Chady was at our service again, ferrying us to the shrines of the three other great and well known saints of Lebanon. In fact one was Blessed, shortly to be raised to Sainthood.
The first visit was to the shrine St Rafqa, a Maronite nun and a relatively young Saint canonized by Pope John Paul II on June 10, 2001. We met with a similar magnificent type of crypt and next to the beautiful church attached to the convent where we were in time for evening prayer with a group of nuns of varying age.
Our next visit was to another shine about 20 minutes away where the remains of St Nimatullah Hardini and Blessed Yusuf Nehme Estfan lay and again, the places were immaculately kept. On completion of our grand saintly tour, we went back to Byblos again and we repeated the journey like we did the end of the day before.
Our taxi driver had perfect English, hr told us he had lost all his life earnings and savings in Canada during the great financial crash and he returned home to pick up the pieces on his native soil. He was a native of Tripoli and when we told him of our visits to the shrines he told us more about St Rafqa whose grandparents lived in Tripoli. When Rafqa had been ill, she was discharged from hospital and her grandparents took her to their home where she recovered with great care before going to the convent. How mind boggling was that?
What should have been another good night’s rest, was rudely interrupted by a violent thunderstorm and torrential rain. The morning was greeted, from as early as 6am, with a constant stream of traffic winding its way further up the mountain in all sorts of buses and cars to prepare for the monthly day in honour of St Charbel.
We had the luxury of breakfast and not leaving our hotel until 9am before the procession with the Blessed Sacrament began from the hermitage to the church. Despite the huge crowds and very narrow roads, everything moved like clockwork, aided by hundreds of volunteers who, I assure you, we could have well have done with during the visit of Pope Francis to our shores. The system was so efficient that I got to the church at 9.15 to prepare for the Mass ahead of the procession which I could see wending its way down the winding road from the hermitage.
The Mass began at 10.15 and lasted about an hour, in a huge church, reminiscent of the church at Our Lady’s shrine at Knock, packed to capacity, with as big a gathering outside and mercifully the rain had stopped. It was a beautiful liturgy, fitting the mood of the people and the place and there must have been close on 10,000 present – extraordinary in a country, with a smaller population than Ireland and only 10% Catholic which, sad to say, is about the percentage of worshippers we have each weekend here on the Holy Ground. This phenomenon is repeated each month on the 22nd.
After the Mass, we met up with another extraordinary individual. This lady Nohad El Shami, was very ill with an incurable disease and she prayed to St Charbel, to either let her die, or cure her. She had a vision of two people coming to help her. One operated on her neck and she began to realise it was St Charbel. She was informed she would be cured, but on the 22nd of each month, the wound would open and blood would appear but it would return to its normal state on the 23rd. He told her “I operated on you so that people will see and return to the faith. I ask you to visit the hermitage on the 22nd of each month.” So, ever since then, the wounds open on that day.
To tell the truth I had a vague recollection of this phenomenon. Jim and Pat had noticed her going out of the church after Mass and were delighted to meet her. I was a little upset to have missed the good lady, but later I noticed a group standing outside the monastery and having met the abbot earlier, I gained admission to the monastery, where the saintly lady was meeting pilgrims and I got my wish as did Jim’s wife Myra.
We were brought back to our hotel at the appointed time of 1.30pm to partake of another huge banquet to celebrate the occasion. After dinner, Chady obliged again and took us off on another long drive to a beautiful place of pilgrimage with a huge monument to Our Lady overlooking the sea with outstretched hands to protect. Harissa was a beautiful little town, perched on top of a hill, ands commanded an outstanding panorama of the towns below on what is an idyllic coastline.
Our pilgrimage over, it was time for dinner and our two friends Carole and Joelle treated us in one of the top class restaurants on the coast with seating for over 500 people. The meal again was something else, with various courses followed by an exotic choice of wonderful fruit. We retired again to our hotel.
Early on Friday morning, we set off on another pilgrimage to the birthplace of St Charbel, another two hour drive up into the mountains with spectacular views. Again the village of his birth was immaculately set up and of course the highlight, was praying in the room where he was born and receiving a blessing from the local Abbott, with a crucifix having the image of Our Lord on both sides – something, I must confess, I never saw until the day before, when Jim bought two similar ones much bigger to bring home to be erected at the entrance of the Marian Grotto in Ballinacurra just outside Midleton where a huge devotion has been cultivated to Our Blessed Mother.
The place was pretty remote and the plan had been to go higher into the mountains to another place of pilgrimage and stay for the night before returning to Beirut the following morning for our last day in Lebanon. Wisely, we made the decision knowing that it would be very difficult to get transport in the morning and we held on to the taxi driver for the day. He showed us more places of interest before bringing us back to Beirut.
Our 8 hour trip with the taxi was very reasonable costing less than $200. We were dropped at our hotel with a peculiar name of ‘1866” right across the road from the American University of Beirut. It was a 5-star hotel and while we came back a day earlier than expected, we were looked after at a very reasonable cost of $100 a room instead of the usual double that amount. ‘Our little angel Carole’, as we affectionately got to know her, knew the owner of the hotel and she had arranged with him that that hotel would give the four of us the hotel free for our last night in Lebanon -0 such an amazing gesture!
Carole and Joelle had arranged to show us around Beirut in the afternoon and after a beautiful sunny morning with 20c temperatures, the skies opened with a sudden thunderstorm and our touring experience was limited. We did see enough of the scars of the dreaded war which had virtually flattened the city, but we saw a vibrancy with new buildings and a wonderful sign of recovery.
We dined at a huge modern shopping mall, before going to Fr Marwan’s church for Holy Mass. It was great to meet him again after the girls had introduced us to him in Medjugorje as their spiritual father. I just wondered how many young ladies like them have spiritual directors to guide them.
After Mass we paid a visit to the modern promenade bristling, with activity, with a huge choice of modern restaurants. It was a trifle sad when we had to part with our two little angels, before returning to our 5-star hotel, for our last night in the most hospitable place, I had ever visited.
HOMEWARD BOUND – SUNDAY
To ensure we had ample time to get to the airport for the strict security checks, we left our hotel at 5.30am on Sunday morning and apart from one slight hold up at an army checkpoint, we arrived at the airport before 6am. We went through a few security checks- nothing moreso than at any other airport and we were ready for our 8am flight to London.
We left behind many happy memories of a wonderful experience and at all times we felt eminently safe, but knowing the hotbed of strife in that part of the world, there is always the danger of a resumption of hostilities, with Israel on its borders and Syria, where over 1 million refugees have fled from and found refuge in Lebanon – sadly for many, in overcrowded camps.
We got a flavour of some of what is happening there, in Cobh a few short months ago, when Trocaire brought an art exhibition for a day, showing the beautiful work some of those in the camps did, as an expression of their talents and of course a huge boost to their self-esteem.
We arrived back safely to Cork from London without a hitch and I was just back in time for the switching on of the Christmas lights in Cobh. Monday saw the celebration of the feast of our patron Saint of our diocese in the Cathedral in Cobh and I could not but feel sad, at such a small gathering for the feast of our saint, with less than 100 present. But it stirred my conscience and I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely, if we could fill the cathedral to honour our own saint. So I have set a process in motion telling everybody of the plan and hopefully the schools, where there are up to 2,000 children, will rally round and encourage the pupils and their families to be attentive to, and proud of, our Saints, just like what I had experienced the 5 previous days in Lebanon. I will leave you with that thought.
Time and space limits me from telling you more about St Charbel and the Saints of Lebanon, but when Christmas is over and I return from annual Carlow College re-union trip to the USA which I have done for 15 years, I will publish a little booklet on the experiences and tell you more about the lives of the saints of Lebanon. You can also google St Charbel and there is a vast amount of information on him as well as beautiful films of his life story on Youtube.
In the meantime, stay well have a blessed holy and peaceful Christmas and a fulfilling 2019. Hopefully, you can note all your appointments on a beautiful colourful calendar I have produced for the 4th year in a row to help feed hungry children in a parish in Mali in West Africa where I send the money directly to my good friend, Fr John Asanyire of the Order of Missionaries of Africa. It looks like the calendar will be sold out, as you read this, but I can send you a digital copy by email or WhatsApp if you contact me at 087-8516984 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.