Vatican City, (VIS) - Shortly before 2 p.m. local time today, Benedict XVI arrived at the international airport of Beirut, which is named after Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon who was killed in a bomb attack in 2005.
The Holy Father was greeted by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, His Beatitude Bechara Boutros Rai, patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites; Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, and Naguib Miqati, prime minister of Lebanon.
Pronouncing his first words on Lebanese soil, the Pope recalled how, during President Sleiman's visit to the Vatican in February 2011, a ceremony had taken place to bless a great statue of St. Maron which stands in a niche on the outside wall of the Vatican Basilica. The presence of that statue, Pope Benedict said, "is a constant reminder of Lebanon in the very place where the Apostle Peter was laid to rest. It witnesses to a long spiritual heritage, confirming the Lebanese people’s veneration for the first of the Apostles and for his successors". The Holy Father also expressed his satisfaction at the excellent relations that have always existed between Lebanon and the Holy See, and underlined the ecclesial importance of one of the reasons for his trip, "the signature and the consigning of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops, 'Ecclesia in Medio Oriente'".
He then went on to thank the Catholic patriarchs for their presence, particularly Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir and his successor Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai. He also greeted Lebanese bishops and, through them, "all the Christians of the Middle East". The Exhortation, he explained, is "addressed to everyone" and "is intended as a roadmap for the years to come. During these days I am also pleased to be able to meet many representatives from the Catholic communities of your country, so as to celebrate and pray together. Their presence, commitment and witness are a valued contribution and are highly appreciated in the daily life of all the inhabitants of your beloved country". The Pope also expressed his warm greetings to the Orthodox patriarchs and bishops who had come to welcome him, as well as representatives of the other religious communities in Lebanon.
"Your presence", he said, "shows the esteem and the cooperation which, in mutual respect, you wish to promote among everyone. I thank you for your efforts and I am certain that you will continue to seek out the paths of unity and concord. I cannot forget the sad and painful events which have affected your beautiful country along the years. The successful way the Lebanese all live together surely demonstrates to the whole Middle East and to the rest of the world that, within a nation, there can exist cooperation between the various Churches, all members of the one Catholic Church in a fraternal spirit of communion with other Christians, and at the same time coexistence and respectful dialogue between Christians and their brethren of other religions. Like me, you know that this equilibrium, which is presented everywhere as an example, is extremely delicate. Sometimes it seems about to snap like a bow which is overstretched or submitted to pressures which are too often partisan, even selfish, contrary and extraneous to Lebanese harmony and gentleness. This is where real moderation and great wisdom are tested. And reason must overcome one-sided passion in order to promote the greater good of all".
"I have also come to say how important the presence of God is in the life of everyone and how the manner of coexistence, this conviviality to which your country wishes to bear witness, will run deep only if it is founded upon a welcoming regard for the other and upon an attitude of benevolence, and if it is rooted in God who wishes all men to be brothers. The celebrated Lebanese equilibrium which wishes to continue to be a reality, will continue through the good will and commitment of all Lebanese. Only then will it serve as a model to the inhabitants of the whole region and of the entire world. This is not just a human task, but a gift of God which should be sought with insistence, preserved at all costs, and consolidated with determination".
"I have come to Lebanon as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of men. ... Looking beyond your country, I also come symbolically to all the countries of the Middle East as a pilgrim of peace, as a friend of God and as a friend of all the inhabitants of all the countries of the region, whatever their origins and beliefs. ... Your joys and sorrows are constantly present in the Pope's prayers and I ask God to accompany you and to comfort you. Let me assure you that I pray especially for the many people who suffer in this region. The statue of St. Maron reminds me of what you live and endure".
Following the welcome ceremony the Pope travelled to the apostolic nunciature in Harissa.