Monastic Life and Death
Youssef Antoun Makhlouf was born on May 8, 1828, in the northern Lebanese village of Bekaa Kafra, when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire. He was the fifth child of a peasant father in a pious family. His two uncles had retreated to monasteries, a life Charbel would adopt when he was 23. His first monastery was that of Our Lady of Maifouk, followed by the St Maron monastery in Annaya, where he became a Maronite and took the name Charbel, after an Antioch church marty of the second century. He was ordained a priest in 1859 in Bkerky (to this day the Maronite Patriarchate in Lebanon), spending the rest of his life in various monasteries.
He was celebrating mass on Dec. 16, 1898, when he fell ill. He died nine days later, on Christmas eve, and was buried in the St. Maron monastery cemetery in Annaya. Legend has it that his body has never decomposed—that, beginning a few months after his death, his grave exuded light, and that his body kept sweating blood. Pilgrims began making the journey to witness the phenomenon.
Charbel’s official Lebanese Web site claims that “In 1950, the grave was opened in the presence of an official committee which included doctors who verified the soundness of the body. After the grave had been opened and inspected, the variety of healing incidents amazingly multiplied. A multitude of pilgrims from different religious facets started flocking to the Annaya monastery to get the saint's intercession. Prodigies reached beyond the Lebanese borders.”
The claims are likely exaggerated: Lebanon’s mountain climate has always lent itself to unexpected extremes. Charbel’s symbolic significance to Lebanon, however, cannot be underplayed.
On Oct. 9, 1977, at the Vaticvabn’s St. Paul Basilica, a frail, 80-year-old Pope Paul VI, speaking in broken French, canonized Charbel a saint before a crowd of 20,000 people, some 6,000 of them Lebanese. Lebanon was in the early years of its 15-year civil war at the time. While the shooting did not come to a halt even on that day, most of Lebanon watched the ceremony, live on national television, in numbers rivaling World Cup matches.
“The torment of recent events has deepened the wrinkles of Lebanon’s face, and thrown a dark shadow on the road to peace,” Pope Paul said. “But you know of our constant sympathy and affection. With you, we keep the firm hope for renewed cooperation among all the brothers of Lebanon.” At the end of the ceremony, Lebanese emissaries presented the pope with a miniature cedar tree (the symbol of Lebanon), bread, wine from vineyards Charbel himself had once tended, a partridge, and red and white roses representing the Lebanese flag.
The ceremony was attended by Pierre Gemayel, leader of Lebanon’s far-right Phalangist Party and militia, as well as Raymond Edde, a former Lebanese legislator, cabinet minister and leader of Lebanon’s National Bloc. Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch Antoine Pierre Khoraiche, rather than a cardinal, officially requested the canonization during the ceremony.
Miracles attributed to Charbel include the curing of a Lebanese nun who had suffered from ulcers for 14 years, the restoration of sight for a man who’d lost it in one eye 13 years earlier, and a man’s recovery from skin cancer.
The day of the ceremony, thousands of faithful Lebanese gathered in Annaya, a 17-mile journey high into the mountains from the seaside old port city of Byblos. Many of the faithful claimed that Charbel’s big statue blessed the crowd and that paralytics walked.