By Doreen Abi Raad | Catholic News Service
BEIRUT (CNS) — Pope Francis’ representative to Lebanon, who is preparing to go to a new assignment as nuncio to Mexico, said he would cherish the four years he has spent in the land of the cedars.
“It has been a very beautiful moment in my life, notwithstanding all the difficulties Lebanon is facing,” said Maltese Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, nuncio to Lebanon. But he said what he would miss most “is the meetings with the Lebanese. Their originality, their resilience, their welcoming nature. I consider myself a friend of Lebanon.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Catholic News Service, Archbishop Spiteri spoke of the challenges the nation faced during his four years, including a stifling socio-economic crisis and the 2020 Beirut port explosions. He described the delicate navigation through Lebanon’s mosaic of 18 religious sects — Muslim, Christian and Druze — inherent with varied intricacies, and he spoke of his hopes for the future of the country.
He said he hoped the country “can have a fresh start as soon as possible.”
“The real treasure that Lebanon can share with the world is the resilience of its citizens, the great possibility that the Lebanese have of how to live together,” Archbishop Spiteri said.
The archbishop described Lebanese helping each other after the port explosion, one of the largest nonnuclear blasts in history. It destroyed the immediate area and damaged more than half the city, leaving more than 200 people dead, 7,000 wounded and displacing at least 300,000 people.
Yet, amid all the devastation, Archbishop Spiteri said he was struck by the solidarity among thousands of people, mostly youth, who came from all over the country, “working together, with brooms and buckets in their hands, to clean up the debris. And seeing the stalls of Caritas distributing warm meals, the makeshift clinics still trying to help the wounded.”
“That was an immediate ray of hope given by the Lebanese themselves,” the nuncio said. “It was incredible. What surprises me always is the great resilience of the Lebanese people and their solidarity.”
He also said he was impressed “seeing Lebanese coming together from different Muslim traditions, from different Christian traditions, the way they manage to understand one another, the friendships that some of them have.”
“I think it’s also the role of the church to help bring out the beauty of this encounter in Lebanon,” the nuncio said.
He spoke to CNS about meeting representatives of the various faith communities.
“You try to meet a person respectfully and try to learn from them and try to understand what they want to tell you, what they represent, what their needs are. It takes time: slowly, slowly,” the diplomat said.
“Always, dialogue remains fundamental. In the end, what matters is the common good of the Lebanese people.”
Referencing what St. John Paul II declared in 1989 — that Lebanon is “more than a country: It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for the East as well as for the West” — the nuncio stressed the late pope “was stating a fact” that is “still valid.”
“Even the constitution is based on the equality of all the Lebanese citizens, belonging to all the different communities,” Archbishop Spiteri said.
Regarding the economy, he said that, four years ago, he “never could have imagined such a drastic” downfall of Lebanon.
The economic meltdown that began in the fall of 2019 has seen Lebanon’s currency devalued by more than 90%. Poverty is now a reality for nearly 80% of the population in what was previously considered a middle-income country.
“It’s sad to see young people feeling obligated to leave,” he said of the mass exodus of Lebanon’s young adults.
“These are young people who have huge capabilities. They have to emigrate in order to earn a living and build up their future, and they will be missing out on helping their country.”
Amid Lebanon’s economic crisis, the nuncio said, “we have been trying to help all the Catholic institutions to maintain their role, which is to serve Lebanese society.”
“Thank God, we have had a good response from Catholics around the world through our papal aid agencies, who have really come to the rescue to help Lebanon’s Catholic schools and hospitals.” He credited the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Aid to the Church in Need, noting “that they don’t have too much overhead and manage to deliver the bulk of what they receive.”
As Lebanon’s presidential election approaches, the country’s future is clouded in uncertainty. Many are concerned that, due to division among politicians, the election in Parliament will be delayed, leaving a vacuum when President Michel Aoun’s six-year mandate expires Oct. 31.
Under Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the presidential post is reserved for a Maronite Catholic.
“We really pray and hope that the politicians will do their part and arrive at an election according to what is stipulated in the constitution,” the nuncio said, warning that a presidential vacuum would “be a disaster” for Lebanon.
As for Pope Francis’ visit to Lebanon that was slated for June, but not formally announced by the Vatican: “It’s still on the agenda,” although there is no specific timeline, the nuncio said.
“I can only repeat what he himself said, that he wants to come to Lebanon,” the nuncio said of the pope.