A road trip on a weekend and making sure you can still get to Mass can sometimes result in a very pleasant surprise and a holy experience.
Quite recently Marjorie (my fiancée) and I were returning home over the weekend from a car trip to Ohio. Not wanting to miss Mass, we looked online at Mass times for the areas we would be traveling through on Saturday afternoon. Expecting to be driving near Uniontown, PA about four o’clock, we found several churches that had four o’clock Saturday afternoon Masses listed.
But our travel plans were slightly delayed driving over the mountainous region of Interstate 70. Out of nowhere, an enormous torrential downpour fell upon us. What started as a leisurely trip soon became a white-knuckled crawl as our visibility quickly shrank to mere feet in front of our car. It was grueling for a while, but neither Marjorie nor I were too afraid. We trusted and prayed that the Lord would see us through, which He did.
A Change in Plans
By the time we rolled into Uniontown, the clock in the car read 4:20, so we quickly looked for other Mass times in the city. A church by the name of St. George Maronite Catholic Church had a Mass at 5 o’clock, which we would be able to make.
Using the GPS on Marjorie’s phone, we drove to the church. It looked small from the outside, but what I found interesting was the cross outside that boasted three cross beams. I’d never seen a cross like that before on a Catholic Church.
After parking in the lot, we debated whether we should go in or wait, since there were only three other cars. Eventually, we went inside and since we still had a little time before Mass, Marjorie and I looked around a bit. On one wall, there were the portraits of three saints (Sts. Sharbel, Rafka, and Maron) painted on wooden slabs. We picked up a copy of the St. George weekly bulletin and spotted a pamphlet on the History of the Maronites.
“The Maronites,” the pamphlet said, “began in the Near East in an area known as the Fertile Crescent, which today comprises the countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. Their common language was Aramaic, the same language spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ in the holy Family at Nazareth, as well as at the Last Supper. Aramaic is still used by the Maronites in various hymns and parts of the Mass, especially at the Consecration.
“Of all the Eastern rite Churches, the Maronite Church is the only one known by the name of a person—St. Maron. Born in the middle of the fourth century, St. Maron was a hermit, who, by his holiness and the miracles he worked, attracted many followers. After his death around the year 410, his monastic disciples built a large monastery in his honor, from which other monasteries were founded.”
The Eastern Catholic Church
Most Roman Catholics are not that familiar with the Eastern Catholic Church. The Syriac Maronite Church (aka: the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch) is one of more than 20 Eastern Catholic churches, all of which are in full communion with the Pope, profess that same Catholic Faith, and celebrate the same Sacraments as the Roman Catholic Church.
The largest of the Eastern Churches is the Ukrainian Catholic Church with about five million members. (The Maronite Catholic Church has around 3.2 million members.) Altogether there are about 17 million Eastern Catholics worldwide. And, yes, Roman Catholics can attend Mass at Eastern Catholic Churches and receive Communion, just as Eastern Catholics can attend Mass and receive Communion at Roman Catholic Churches. More information on the differences and similarities between the Roman and Eastern Catholic Churches can be found in article Catholic World Report editor Carl Olsen wrote for Catholic Answers Magazine here.
The Maronite Mass
Seeing people starting to enter the main body of the church, we followed suit.
The interior of the church was magnificent! On both sides, sun was shining in through the stained glass windows. Up front, on the left side of the altar was a painting that depicted St. George as he was slaying the dragon. The altar itself had a beautiful wood carving showing God as both Father and Holy Spirit pointing to the Chalice while two angels bowed on either side. On the right side of the altar was a statue of the Blessed Virgin in a most gorgeous shade of blue. Behind the altar, a large stained glass window stood in the shape of a Cross. It was accented and flanked on either side by two icons portraying Mary seated with the Infant Jesus and Jesus sitting on His throne.
On the pew beside us, we found a small but thick red book called the Qurbono. Upon opening it, we were amazed to find the writing in two different translations: the first was in English and the second in Syriac. At the time, neither of us knew the second language was Syriac.
As Mass started, we were impressed by the sheer reverence that the priest, Rev. Father Sami Chaaya, M.L.M., and the Subdeacon, Thomas R. George, displayed over the course of the next hour. Whenever Father Chaaya went up to read, or pray, or recite passages from the Qurbono, he would carry a crucifix and would bless not only the books, the tabernacle, and the altar; but the congregation as well. In addition, he used incense during every important part of the Mass.
An Uplifting Experience
When it came time to respond in prayer, Marjorie and I did our best to follow along and recite the passages as the entire congregation answered in Syriac. Many times, everyone else would be halfway through a prayer before we managed to catch up. Regardless the entire experience was immensely uplifting because we could sense the reverence in that sacred space.
For me, a visually-oriented person, one image struck me most of all: Just before Father Chaaya consecrated the host and chalice, the sun began to stream in through the beautiful stained glass window behind him. Both he and the altar were bathed in this exquisite beam of lush blues, reds, and oranges. It was like witnessing Jesus descending into the bread and wine; turning them into His sacred Body and Blood.
By the end of the Mass, Marjorie and I knew we had experienced something holy in that church. We couldn’t quite describe it, but our spirits had been uplifted.
After Mass Father Chaaya greeted us before we walked out the door. He expressed his joy and gratitude at seeing a young couple such as us who were so clearly on fire for their faith. He added that we were welcome to come back any time. Both Marjorie and I agreed that we would indeed like to attend Mass at St. George Maronite Catholic Church again someday.
What started off as a surprise turned into a holy, unique, and eye-opening experience that I would eagerly recommend to others. If there’s a Maronite church nearby, don’t pass up a chance to experience an Eastern Rite Mass.