A growing Maronite Catholic mission in Donelson has been assigned a priest and is eager to become a part of Nashville’s greater Catholic community.
St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Mission only started holding its Divine Liturgies in February 2022 at the Catholic Church of the Korean Martyrs on Lebanon Road in Donelson. But in that short time, it has already built a community of more than 100 regulars who attend a monthly Mass and wants to share their unique expression of the Catholic faith with Middle Tennessee.
Father Peter Raad was recently assigned to the mission as its regular priest. He is an immigrant from Beirut, Lebanon, who moved to the United States in 1977 to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering. He and his wife of more than 40 years raised their four children in the Catholic faith, attending Catholic churches in Dallas, Texas, including St. Patrick and later St. Rita. He began his priestly formation in the spring of 2020, was ordained on May 7, and is currently an associate pastor at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church in Lewisville, Texas, near Dallas.
Traveling monthly from Dallas to Nashville is not a problem for Father Raad. He is used to long-distance traveling from his regular career as a university academic and is happy to have the opportunity to serve Nashville’s burgeoning Maronite community. He celebrated his first Mass with the St. Sharbel community on June 11.
“The way it works is that a community begins by requesting from our bishop a new church. In this case, the community reached out to the Very Rev. A. Elias Zaidan, our Bishop of the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, with the request to establish a church in Nashville,” explained Father Raad.
“Initially, you have to figure out the capacity of the local faithful to have a church because, obviously, the community doesn’t normally own any church or land,” he added. “And so, the journey begins as a mission, with a priest from another place supporting it. Initially, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated once a month, then twice a month, and once the community is established by our bishop, it ceases to be a mission and becomes a parish.”
Many Catholics have not had the opportunity to experience an Eastern Church Mass before, largely because these churches account for only 1.25% of global Catholics. American Catholicism is naturally more heavily influenced by the theology and spirituality of Western Catholicism, as for example with the profound scholastic thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Father Raad says that the changes to liturgy and spiritual practices are aspects that visitors and new members may need a bit of getting used to, but all Catholics in good standing are welcome to commune at St. Sharbel.
“There are 23 Catholic Churches that are all in full communion with each other and with the Bishop of Rome, and consider the pope to be the successor of St. Peter and thus first among equals. The Eastern Churches have their origins in the early Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Armenia, Chaldea, Alexandria, and Constantinople, and so, many of the Eastern Catholic Churches are still led to this day by patriarchs,” Father Raad said.
There are several Eastern Church communities in the Diocese of Nashville, including a Byzantine community, a Syro-Malabar community, and a Coptic Catholic community.
“We’re all Catholic, we have the same seven sacraments, but we have different disciplines and spiritualities and different venerable traditions,” Father Raad said. “As one obvious example, I’m a married man and a priest, which is not the tradition in the Roman Church.”
The Maronite church is named for St. Maron, a Christian monk whose followers suffered under tremendous oppression in the centuries following his death, especially beginning in the fifth century. The largest current population of Maronites lives in modern-day Lebanon, but it is estimated that there are several million members of the Church around the world.
“The liturgy is substantially different – not in its movements, as we still have the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eeucharist – but (for the language of the liturgy) we use Syriac, which is a dialect of Aramaic, the language Christ spoke,” Father Raad said.
“The spirituality is drawn from early Church Fathers and saints like St. John Chrysostom and St. Ephrem, drawing from the Eastern traditions of ‘faith adoring mystery’ rather than ‘faith seeking understanding’ that you see in the Western traditions,” he said. “You’ll find more emphasis on the Holy Spirit and the mysterious side of faith, not trying to dissect and understand everything. The West is influenced by philosophy, but the East is influenced by poetry – like the Psalms. The expression of the faith is slightly different.”
The St. Sharbel community is very eager to draw more interest in its next Mass in July – both because the community is growing and it wants to share its faith with its fellow Catholics, and because that Sunday marks a special occasion for the church, as they will be celebrating St. Sharbel’s feast day.
“What’s really wonderful is that this community, when the bishop asked them what they wanted to call their church, they chose St. Sharbel, who was a hermit in Lebanon and a saint in the Catholic Church,” Father Raad said. “His feast day is July 23, and the Maronite Church has decided to celebrate his feast on the third Sunday of July. We’ve been granted the opportunity to celebrate the Feast of St. Sharbel, our community’s namesake, next month.
“God-willing, I’m trying to bring with me a relic of his and some oils from Lebanon from his monastery, and I will anoint the sick and suffering with the oil after liturgy,” he added.
Father Raad is excited to see the growth and love that already exists at St. Sharbel and hopes that word of mouth will draw more attention to the mission and help it grow. Its next Mass will be at the Catholic Church of the Korean Martyrs on Lebanon Road at 2 p.m. July 16.
For information about St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Mission, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Nadine Choufani, mission secretary, at 615-281-0256.