Great-nephew of one of the martyred priests was present at the ceremony on June 4.
BEIRUT — On the eve of Pentecost, troubled Lebanon celebrated the beatification of two Lebanese martyred Capuchin priests.
Their path to sainthood represents a spark of hope and strength for the country, nearing collapse as it suffers from a severe socioeconomic crisis that has plunged nearly 90% of the population into poverty.
The blessed martyrs — Capuchin Fathers Leonard Melki and Thomas Saleh — were persecuted and killed in hatred of the faith in Turkey under the Ottoman Empire, in 1915 and 1917 respectively.
Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, presided over the June 4 Mass, with thousands gathered under the setting sun in the courtyard of the convent and psychiatric hospital complex of the Franciscan Sisters of the Cross in Jal El Dib, overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean.
The order was founded by the blessed martyrs’ fellow Lebanese Capuchin, Blessed Abouna Yaccoub, who was beatified in Lebanon in 2008, whose tomb lies in the adjoining church.
Cardinal Marcello Semeraro in his homily said:
“Even today and in many parts of the world, injustice wounds humanity and causes great suffering.”
He said that the two martyrs were “victims of a wave of hatred that repeatedly swept through the end of the Ottoman Empire and mingled with the tragic events of the persecution of the entire Armenian people and against the Christian faith.”
“Humanly, they were victims, but from the perspective of the Christian faith they were victors,” Cardinal Semeraro said.
“Who gives the martyr the courage to be a witness? It is the Holy Spirit that gives courage,” the cardinal said, quoting Roman 8:26: “’The Spirit comes to the rescue of our weakness.’”
Prelates participating on the altar included Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops; Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, patriarch of Maronite Catholics; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan; a bishop representing Armenian Catholic Patriarch Raphaël Bedros XXI Minassian; and Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, papal nuncio to Lebanon.
Attracted by the missionary example of friars from the Capuchin Order serving in their village of Baabdat, Lebanon, Melki was just 14 and Saleh 16 when they left their homeland in 1895, entering the minor seminary of San Stefano, a district of Istanbul. In their mission, they served Christians of all rites, including Armenian, Syriac and Chaldean.
They were ordained in Turkey in 1904.
When Turkish soldiers raided Father Melki’s monastery in Mardin, he hid the Blessed Sacrament. Imprisoned and subjected to barbaric torture, he stood strong and remained faithful when offered mercy if he agreed to convert to Islam.
From Mardin, Turkey, where he served, Father Melki was forced to march to a desert with more than 400 Christian prisoners, including the Armenian Catholic bishop, Blessed Ignace Maloyan, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001. All refused to convert to Islam. They were massacred on June 11, 1915, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. Father Melki was stabbed with a dagger in the heart.
According to a historical account of the incident, one of the executioners said:
“We have never seen people so strong in their faith. If the Christians had captured us and offered us the same chance to convert, we all would have become Christians.”
For Father Saleh, the persecution escalated after he sheltered an Armenian priest during the genocide. Father Saleh was arrested, sentenced to death and deported in the middle of winter under the escort of a platoon of soldiers. He died on Jan. 18, 1917 in Marash, repeating with courage: “I have full trust in God. I am not afraid of death.”
In his homily, Cardinal Semeraro said the strength demonstrated by Fathers Melki and Saleh is a spiritual gift that “in Catholic doctrine is the third cardinal virtue, that is, one of those which constitute the foundations of a virtuous life.”
“The purpose of the Church is also to bear witness to this strength,” the cardinal said.
Elie Saleh, who was born in Baabdat, the village of the two blessed martyrs, told the Register ahead of the beatification, “I still can’t believe that one of my great-uncles is a candidate to sainthood. This makes me feel very proud, and not just for me, but proud for all the Lebanese people.”
“It is very special to have this event under the bad circumstances which we are going through in Lebanon. This is one of the good stories that lighten our lives,” said the 72-year-old descendant of the new Blessed Saleh.
“Lebanon is now the land of several saints,” Saleh remarked. Regarding Lebanon’s crises, he said, “I think it’s going to last for a while unless there is a miracle from these two saints and the intercession of the Lebanese saints we have. This is what the Lebanese people are hoping for, because they have endured too much.”
Father Michel Abboud, president of Caritas Lebanon, told the Register at the beatification:
“Today is a day of hope. It’s a sign for us to persevere. We lost many things in Lebanon, but we should not lose our hope.”
An elderly woman, overcome with emotion, limped toward the Carmelite priest and, touching his arm, cried out, “Abouna [Father] Michel, I love you!” — a testimony to the faith of the people and how desperate Lebanese are relying on the Church for help in the crippling economic crisis.
Amid an atmosphere of enthusiastic joy following the beatification, Carmelite Sister Maddalena Hanna told the Register, “It’s very important to us in this difficult period to have signs of hope that God is giving us blessings, that he didn’t abandon us.” The sister is principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel school in Fanar, outside of Beirut, with 1,526 students, she said.
“We see that God has answered us and is giving us these signs of hope” with the beatifications, Sister Maddalena said. “It helps us to regain a little more faith.”
Father Abdallah Al-Noufeily, custos of the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor in the Near East, told the Register ahead of the beautification, “Our people are suffering. I believe the beatification is a sign from God that in the middle of the pain and the difficulties, He’s saying: ‘I’m here. I’m with you. Trust in me.’”
The Order of Capuchin Friars Minor had provided 30 buses to bring the faithful from all over Lebanon to attend the ceremony. Even before the war in Ukraine, Lebanon has been experiencing skyrocketing fuel costs, such that a fill-up for a standard car now exceeds the monthly minimum wage.
Saide Younnes, an 18-year-old university student majoring in biology, who came with fellow members of the St. Francis Mission youth group, expressed to the Register the prevailing sentiment at the conclusion of the ceremony: “We are so thankful and grateful. We need faith. We need God. We need prayers.”
The two declared martyrs and blesseds of the universal Church have joined the ranks of Lebanese sainthood with: St. Charbel, St. Rafka, St. Nimatullah, Blessed Estefan and Blessed Yaccoub.
The feast of Blesseds Melki and Saleh will be observed annually on June 10.