Aramaic Words bind Maronites
St. Jude Catholic Church feels a link
to Mel Gibson's movie about Jesus.
By Terry O. Roen
Special to the Sentinel
Posted February 29, 2004
Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke to his disciples, is chanted during
daily Mass at St. Jude Catholic Church, which uses the Maronite Rite.
The 200 parishioners of the Orlando church are mostly of Lebanese descent
and have preserved the language and customs of Jesus in their daily
liturgy. Many of them emigrated to the United States seeking freedom to
exercise their religious beliefs.
The director Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of The Christ, which tells the
story of Jesus' last 12 hours, is in Aramaic and Latin. Faryrouz, a
Lebanese music group, sings Maronite hymns in the movie.
"The Aramaic brings back memories of our home," said the Rev. George Zina,
pastor of St. Jude Church. "This movie has been the providence of God and
will bring attention to the Christians of Lebanon who shed blood for the
sake of the
The Maronite Church, sometimes called the Maronite Rite, had its origins
in Antioch, Turkey. For many centuries, the Maronites were the only
Christians in the East who recognized the pope in Rome. They originally
lived in the Syrian Empire and took refuge in Mount Lebanon during the
Arab invasions to preserve their identity and faith.
Maronites take their name from the hermit priest and monk, St. Maron, who
died in 410. The church was organized in the seventh century.
Many Maronites emigrated to the West, especially to the United States, to
flee from Arabic oppression during the civil war in Lebanon. They brought
with them the customs and culture of their homeland.
The term Aramaic is derived from Aram, the fifth son of Shem, the
firstborn of Noah. Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew. It was spoken
until the 17th century but is considered a dying language, much like
Latin. Some villages in the Middle East still speak the Syriac language, a
dialect of Aramaic; however, most were forced to switch to Arabic
languages when a majority of the people of the region
were converted to Islam.
"The Islamics killed the Aramaic language," said Tom Harb, a St. Jude
parishioner who came to the United States in 1980 to further his
education. "Everyone who leaves our Mass feels overjoyed to hear it.
Aramaic helps us keep our culture and traditions."
Aramaic is used in four parts of the Maronite Rite, including the opening
prayer, parts of the gospel readings, the consecration of the Eucharist
and the invocation of the Holy Spirit.
Harb said he remembers his grandfather speaking Aramaic, but like most
Maronites, he only recognizes the prayers. The father of three children
said he brings his family to St. Jude so they can appreciate their
heritage. The church has Lebanese dances and dinners that educate the next
generation about their ancestors.
"People chant in Aramaic and respond in it, even if they don't understand
it," said Zina, who was born in Besharee, Lebanon, the birthplace of the
late actor Danny Thomas. Other famous Lebanese-Americans include poet and
Khalil Gibran and Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command in
The 110 families who started the parish originally met at Holy Family
Catholic Church before raising more than $1 million to build their own
church at 5555 Dr. Phillips Blvd. The simple but elegant
Mediterranean-style church was
dedicated in October and seats 260 -- which is small for Catholic churches
in the Diocese of Orlando. The parish hall in a basement below the church
has an inscription from Psalm 92:13: "The just man shall flourish like the
palm tree, like
the cedars of Lebanon shall he grow."
There are more than 8 million Maronites in 300 parishes worldwide, and
Florida has Maronite churches in Miami, West Palm Beach and Jacksonville.
said St. Jude is open to everyone who wants to hear the word of God and
not just for those of Lebanese descent.
"Despite all the invasions and persecutions of our people, we fought hard
to preserve what Mel Gibson is presenting," Zina said. "We are not Arabs,
and we don't want to lose our identity."
The priest said he plans to attend the movie with a group of parishioners
as soon as they can get tickets.