This week I am mourning, as are many Catholics in the Holy Land. Yesterday two great men passed away. Two who were true fathers, both signs of hope, reconciliation and collaboration. Both spiritual and practical, strong and tender, self-secure and hospitable. Pray for the soul of Sami Dababneh, a husband and father who carryied the last flame of Christian presence in a Palestinian village of world heritage; and pray for the soul of Abouna (father) Maroun Tannous, a veritable shepherd of the Church in Galilee.
Two summers ago, Sami welcomed me, a penniless pilgrim, on the spot, to spend the night in his basement and to share a lovely breakfast with his family. His house is embedded in a village of tiny alleys and houses built on top of each other, upon three millennia of ruins in Sebastia, upon the palace of King Ahab, husband of Jezebel of Tyre and Sidon. Ahab the king of Israel was confronted by Elijah for idolatry and punished with three years of drought.
As Roman Catholics, Sami, his wife, and children are the last Christian family in their village, Sebastia, now populated by Muslims. They are the guardians of the church, pit, and cave chapel commemorating the possible place of John the Baptist’s death and/or burial. Sami’s parents have graves next to the cave chapel that is right in the middle of the archeological site. I hope he will be laid to rest there with them.
Sami has done wonderful work helping his village organize and develop a culture of hospitality and tourism that sustains its economy and that can facilitate access to the historical and spiritual place. With the help of Italian Catholic associations, the villagers have learned how to protect their industries from the rich entrepreneurs of the nearby metropolis of Nablus. Villagers like Sami have formed themselves to gentrify and market the site, and to improve and found hostels, restaurants. The village center became a respectable, peaceful home and a viable locus of business, deep in the troubled West Bank.
I arrived for my first visit to Ibillin skating from the coastal city of Haifa. When Abouna Maroun and his deacon-in-training welcomed me, I felt like he was a true man of the Church. He opened to me a place to sleep on a futon in his office.
Melkite (Byzantine Catholic) priest, husband, and father, he has been director of the Christian radio station in Nazareth and pastor of the Melkite parish in Ibillin, home of St. Mariam Baouardy and a center of Christians in Galilee. Youth from around Galilee attend high school in Ibillin, and an emeritus Bishop resides here.
The Melkite and Orthodox parishes are both next to St. Mariam’s house, and they welcome the devotion of visitors, both Christian and Muslim. Although the village is half-Muslim, a song to Mary is played over the loud speakers morning, noon and evening, like an Angelus bell or the call of the Muslim muezzin.
Fr. Maroun has helped resolve bickering factions, has knit a friendship with the Orthodox pastor, and has helped erect a chapel of the Blessed Sacrament decorated with large icons depicting the life of St. Mariam, which remains open 24/7 for those who come to pray.
Abouna Maroun and I had so much to share as we drove into the hills for a BBQ with his neighboring Orthodox pastor and flock. He shared my interest and concern for reaching and forming young people. He had been walking with several young men discerning a call to celibate life, something challenging for the Melkites, as there are no existing Melkite monasteries or active orders in the Holy Land. He was even working to found a house of formation for them.
Yesterday morning, as I headed to catch a train to Galilee for a few days of encounters with Melkite young people, I received news of Sami through a text message from his wife, by his number. I shared the news at the evening Mass I celebrated in a monastic cave for some Melkite young men and French religious sisters. I told them about Sami, and they shared with me the news of the passing of Abouna Maroun.
There is an air of gratefulness for all that this pastor was for the Church. What a loss for this fragile community in Galilee. And Sami, what a loss for the mission of the Church to keep a flame of Christian faith burning in the Holy Land, and in the Muslim-dominated Middle East. Noble lives of faith, of friendship, of a shining mission. Can their witness and their prayers lead us to persevere, to trust the Lord, to boldness as we step forward?