“I’m here to get your blessings,” I began, delicately raising my voice to grab the attention of the man lying on the hospital bed in front of me. “How many kilos would you like?” he asked in a rather serious tone, which lasted as long as it took a smile to appear through the sparkling of his eyes. “As much as you can give me,” I replied, hardly able to contain my smile in return.
The Red Bishop of Beirut has just turned 91. When I first met Archbishop Gregoire Haddad last year, I didn’t find any better way to start a conversation with him than by asking him for his blessings. I confess that life and circumstances have forced me to question the many Christian beliefs based on which I was raised upon, and on which Gregoire Haddad has made a living out of spreading. But with him it was and always will be different. These blessings come from a man who practiced secularism before preaching it, when Lebanon was on the verge of a poisonous sectarian civil war. These blessings come from a man who questioned the church’s teachings to the extent of being labeled a heretic, at a time when questioning was and often is still frowned upon, but was later redeemed by the strength and purity of his own faith and convictions. These blessings come from a man who practiced socio-economic development and equitable sustainable development in Lebanon within the framework of his ‘Social Movement’, as a means to bring people together and foster a common Lebanese identity, when all other religious and political forces were exploiting these differences to break the country apart. These blessings come from a man who, even after a bloody civil war and a post-war that has been nothing but a cold war of national identity, as well as political, economic, social and developmental failure, still believes that change is possible.
Today, I look at Father Gregoire and see the avant-garde theologian that he always was. The aggressively progressive man of religion redeemed by the presence of someone like Pope Francis, a man of faith yet revolutionary, attempting to bring his flock and the gargantuan, shadowy and generally corrupt establishment built around them back to the most basic teachings of the church: love, simplicity, equality and justice.
Today, and more importantly, I also look at Father Gregoire as the avant-garde political activists and believer in Lebanon that he always was. Someone who believed that what brought/brings Lebanese together was/is much greater and valuable than what tore and continues to tear them apart. Someone who was fought precisely because he was able to free the relationship between the Lebanese of the facade of differences too big to presumably overcome – the same way in which the current popular movements, which have overcome sectarianism to unify people against the government/political class, are being fought today. He didn’t believe in religion nor sect, not even his own, as someone’s most important identity, but in one’s human identity, and that is why he was considered so dangerous, a heretic in religion as well as in society. But time redeemed him too.
I know that Father Gregoire is now watching the news and smiling, that serene yet mischievous smile to himself, watching how the corrupt and inept Lebanese government and political class provided the ultimate alibi, on a golden tray, for the people to take to the streets and rebel, like he did. I know he is nodding to himself, seeing that Lebanon finally understood that sectarianism was a lie and was proving it to him, no matter how humbly at this stage, that people can get over it to fight for a better future, together.
When I last saw Father Gregoire, I wanted to hear from him all I could hear and he did speak as much as his health allowed. I will not deny that I felt down at the time, almost depressed, at the dead-end in which we in Lebanon had found ourselves, unable to get out of the vicious circle of poverty, corruption and nepotism, unequal development and social injustice. He gave me hope. He told me, and the dear friend thanks to which I had the opportunity to meet him, not to give up hope. He asked me to join the “Social Movement” that he had helped establish in 1961 to spread the secularism and sustainable development he so fiercely believes in.
But he also told me something that I never quite understood until today. It was if he saw right through my eyes, and straight into my hopelessness and despair for a country that I had given too much of a chance for too long and had gotten nothing by disappointment in return. A country for which those of my generation didn’t want to give up hope for but weren’t given another choice but to do so. He said that things will get better, it will take years, but they will get better and that there was no reason to lose hope or stop believing. “Your time is now,” he said. It is only now that I understand what he truly meant.
Happy Birthday Father Gregoire.