The Maronite tradition continues at St. Rafka

GREENVILLE — Father Bartholomew Leon is a priest with the rare distinction of being able to celebrate Mass under two completely different Catholic rites.  
He serves as pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Mission in the Upstate, the only place in the Diocese of Charleston where the Maronite rite, with roots in the ancient Middle East, is offered.  
The Maronite Church is one of the Eastern Catholic churches in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. The Maronite liturgy includes sections in Arabic as well as Syriac, a version of Aramaic.  
Because he has been given “bi-ritual” faculties by Rome, Father Leon is able to celebrate Mass for St. Rafka’s parishioners and those at nearby St. Mary Church. Mass at St. Rafka is celebrated at 11 a.m. Sunday in Gallivan Hall on the campus of St. Mary Church in Greenville.  
The Maronites trace their Christian roots to early believers in the area of modern-day Syria and Lebanon. They  take their name from a priest-hermit, Maron, who lived near Syria and died in the third century. His disciples founded a church and then a monastery,
Father Leon, known as “Father Bart” to most of his parishioners, is a Benedictine monk who was ordained to the priesthood in 1985. Originally from New Orleans, La., he discovered the Maronite rite while studying at a Benedictine monastery in Corpus Christi, Texas.  
“Our monastery in Texas had a chapel to a Lebanese saint that was visited by local Lebanese Maronites who would hold a big liturgy there every year,” he said. “I got interested in the Maronites and studied locally with a Maronite priest in Austin who showed me the rituals and gave me books on Maronite spirituality and history.”  
After he was ordained, he contacted the Bishop of the Maronite eparchy in his area. The bishop and his monastery’s abbot then petitioned Rome to allow Father Leon to have bi-ritual faculties, which means he is allowed to celebrate Mass and offer sacraments in both the Latin and Maronite rites. He received an induit from Rome, and since then has served Maronite churches in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire as well as St. Rafka’s.  
“It’s a crucial skill because as a bi-ritual priest I’m able to help in both rites of the Church in South Carolina,” Father Leon said. “I’m ordained in the Latin rite and I can help out with the Latin rite Mass at St. Mary’s. I also hear confessions at St. Mary’s and at St. Mary Magdalene in Greenville, as well as celebrating Mass for St. Rafka.”
The Maronite liturgy is a trilingual experience, with most of the Mass in English. Some hymns are sung in Arabic, while the consecration and some other key prayers are sung in Aramaic, Leon said.  
“I had to learn the Aramaic by listening to it on a tape recorder, because the sounds are so different than anything else that’s spoken today,” he said.  
The mission of St. Rafka is named after a Lebanese saint who was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2001. St. Rafka was born Petronilla and became a nun while still in her teens. She lived with illness and blindness during her last years, but was known for a positive and gentle spirit throughout her life. She died in 1914.  
St. Rafka Mission was established in 2002 after several years of work by a core group of Lebanese families in the Upstate and from around the diocese. Four different priests, including Father Leon, have served the mission over the years.  
He is currently in the middle of his second stint as pastor. He was first installed in November 2003 but was transferred to a Maronite parish in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in the summer of 2004. He returned to St. Rafka in February 2006.  
Attendance at St. Rafka averages between 75 and 100 people a week, with about 200 households on the mission’s roster.  Father Leon said several of the members are Lebanese-Americans whose families have been in South Carolina and the Upstate for decades. There are also newer immigrants from Lebanon, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, and some Catholics with no Lebanese or Middle Eastern roots who attend because they like the tradition and pageantry of Maronite worship.  
St. Rafka  is a mission of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn.