My dearest parishioners;
I join Bishops Elias Zaidan and Gregory Mansour, the clergy and laity of the Eparchies of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles and of Saint Maron Brooklyn, to offer our sympathy and condolence to the Shaheen family of late Bishop Robert J. Shaheen, who passed away on Wednesday August 9- 2017, in St. Louis MO.
I am saddened yet filled with hope. Sayedna Robert is the Bishop who ordained me priest. I always felt it is both a great responsibility and a spiritual honor that “Sayedna Shaheen” (which translates to “Excellency” in Lebanese) has chosen me to be his “first born” in the priesthood back in May 19- 2001. In fact my ordination to the priesthood with the laying on of his pure hands, took place 3 months and 4 days after he was ordained as the First American Born Bishop for the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles on February 15- 2001.
“I am proud of you, I trust you, you are doing good job…. and remember, you are a priest first”. These were his words to me last week during my visit with him which took place in St. Louis MO, on August 2-3, Wednesday and Thursday.
I’d like to address my dear Bishop Zaidan with condolence, for I know how much he is saddened and will miss Bishop Shaheen. As he was dropping me off at the Airport on Thursday last week, Bishop Zaidan told me, “I am so worried about him (meaning Bishop Shaheen), for he is retaining water in his body and this is not good at all Andre”.
Sayedna Zaydan and I kept talking about the legacy of Bishop Shaheen, not wanting to confess that he was at risk of death. Bishop Shaheen is the “Giant Founding Father” for the defining characteristics in pastoral ecclesiology, spirituality, history, and liturgy of Maronite Church in America. He learned the Maronite way from his paternal grandma, “Tayta Shaheen,” as he called her in colloquial Lebanese endearment terms. As the first graduated student from the Maronite Seminary in Washington D.C., Bishop Shaheen will remain forever the first blessed fruit of the successful Maronite Integrated Spirituality in America with clear roots to Lebanon and Antioch, that the founding fathers and mothers of the Maronite Church in America were ardently working to achieve and maintain since 1854, the date of the arrival of the first Maronite immigrant to the United States of America, Antonios Beshallani.
St. Louis, MO misses him; so will the entire United States and the Maronite Church in the world. He was a living legacy and the concrete sign that the Maronite is not a passing church of emigrants in the United States and is here to stay to evangelize and to share the Apostolic responsibility of preaching the Gospel like any other American church, except that we do it as he always said: “In the speaking of the special character of the language that Jesus himself spoke: Syro-Aramaic, and according to the Apostolic identity of Antioch, the place where the disciples of Jesus we first called Christians.”
During our final lunch last week, at “Chris’s Pancake House on the Italian Hill, with Sayedna and Roxie, I kept jokingly complaining to him saying: “how weird it is that every day in my life now I keep doing things and acting in the way that looks more and more like you”. In fact, I am so attached to Bishop Shaheen’s wisdom. Any time he blew up at something in the past, I would complain to Roxie and she would tell me, “Father, remember people have hobbies, and Sayedna’s hobby was always his love for the church and reading about its history, its liturgy, and its spirituality. So, you need to understand that he does not get upset, he just sees things way ahead of time, and he ends up either trying to warn about it or to prevent it, if possible.”
I will miss his wisdom and his “anger management school.” I say this, for anyone who knew him well would tell you what his mom, God rest her soul, use to say about him, “don’t believe him when he yells at you, for his heart is like a child and he loves you, he always means well.” I will miss his special way of living holy and still being normal. His love for the priests and his care for them and their joy and happiness is what led him to choose Bishop Zaidan as his successor. He knew that Bishop Zaidan can talk to and love the priests, just like he did. He knew Zaidan is humble and man of prayer and work, just like he was. He chose him both young and wise, so he can do the job, and deal with the problems in a healthy, Christ-like manner. He chose him for his commitment to daily prayer, to loving and caring for the church and the faithful, for Bishop Shaheen was also a pastor-bishop, and a priest’s friend. He chose him for he is committed to the love of the church and for America, as by doing so he broke the wall that separates Lebanon from the United States. Bishop Zaidan, I greet you with the spirit of Bishop Shaheen and give you my sympathy, and may God bless you with good and long years in which you will continue to succeed Sayedna Shaheen in serving as his successor and Bishop of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles.
This is August, a month that is well loved by Sayedna Shaheen, the people of Saint Raymond were ready to take the same bus that took us for years and years, since the late 60s, to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in North Jackson, Ohio, near Youngstown. Like every year, he was going to ride the bus with the parishioners of Saint Raymond, to go there and meet with thousands of Maronites and faithful Catholics and the nuns who would await for his arrival, for he made the Pilgrimage so special and he was the apostle of Our Lady’s spirituality in America to this effect. However, God had plans, and decided to call his servant back Home where Our Lady, in both body and soul, is Queen of Heaven and Earth. God tells my late bishop and father, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Come and inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world, for I was sick and you visited me, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was in prison and you visited me, I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and gave me drink.”
Believe me all, this is the spirituality of my Bishop Robert J. Shaheen: do the practical and small things with big love and dedication. Build the church by building its people. But, he was not alone; he had tough times yet kind and holy people were there to help him. He had an angel, a lady matriarch who believed in his school and co-guided his achievement to clarity and good outcome: Roxie Rask, his loyal assistant, who is a grandma and great grandma for over 50 descendants of her and the late Raymond “Pete” Rask. I call her my spiritual mother. To her I send all the hugs in the world, and my deepest sympathy and I pray for healing from sadness in her heart. Roxie, a faithful servant and a “shield” who knew how to say the truth without harming, who knew how to build a family while building an entire church, who knew how to care for her own ill children in times of news while helping to feed and educate many priests and seminarians, bishops, Cardinals and public figures. Today, I stand in awe with deep gratitude for her hard and excellent labor in the field of the Church and family. Her presence in the Maronite Church in America, as descendant of native Americans, is a living proof that the Maronite Church is a Church of Hope and Mercy, a Church that fits the earth of America and its foundation on the natural spirituality of kindness, beauty, silent service, and the free self-giving in love for the Church and people. She will remain as the spiritual mother for many priest who passed through or were ordained in St. Louis. Despite her sadness, which represents the sadness of thousands of people admired Bishop Shaheen, Roxie will guide us, the spiritual family of the priest who “looks like a bishop but is more”, to keep his memory alive as a school which aims to build families and found parishes on the Rock of Faith, Hope and Love.
Sayedna, May you always Rest In Peace, and may we see you in Heaven, with the Saints and holy martyrs, with the apostles and righteous and just, with Saint Maron, with Our Lady of St. Louis and of Lebanon, with Saint Raymond, Saint Rafka, who you always felt the pain of her blindness to be a mystery so deep, and Saint Sharbel, and all the saints.
Bless us from where you are, and bless the church that is now going through a global persecution and turmoil, bless America who is under global attack in her Christian Identity that you always were proud of its expression of Religious Freedom, and bless the people of the world, who might be suffering from a Global cosmic Third World War. I know you defeated major obstacles while you were alive, and now these are your new tasks to achieve. I trust you will shake Heaven and I know you will in order to keep “Peace on Earth and Good Hope for all people of Good Will”.
I love you with tears now.
Your Son, as you called me but not the only begotten,
Abouna Andre Y Sebastian Mahanna