“For me, social justice and faith are inseparable,” says Father George Hajj, pastor of Saint Anthony of Padua Maronite church, located on Victory Parkway, in Cincinnati. “And faith without action is only echo.”
Hajj was born in the country of Lebanon in a Maronite family where secular and religious lives were closely married and intertwined. Growing up, his parents will always refer to religious events as milestones for those of daily life, associating, for instance, in the summer, the Feast of the Assumption to a change in weather, or the Holy Cross Day to the onset of rain. His parents also raised him with strong moral values, teaching him not only to help the vulnerable and those in need but, as well, to be compassionate and non judgmental.
“We were always taught to hate the sin but love the sinner,” he says.
Being the first grandchild, Hajj grew up very close to his paternal grandfather of whom he carried the name and whose unshakable faith strongly influenced his. This latter instilled in him his own good values, teaching him to have complete trust in the work of God in his life, and to always be thankful for God’s mercy, giving back to others.
“My grandfather had a small cookie jar in his business store and would regularly put in it 10% of his daily income for the poor and the needy,” states Hajj. “I learned from him this tithing and have been practicing it myself ever since my first earned income while at the university.”
For schooling, Hajj attended three different Maronite schools where he strengthened his faith and put it regularly into action. As a student member of the Knights of Mary, a Christian youth organization, he would regularly do volunteer work for families in need and go to camps in poor villages helping with various needed chores.
After high school he joined the Lebanese University, studying Archeology, and graduated with a Master’s degree. While there he became a member of the Christian Students Youth and participated in their weekly prayer services and masses, in drives of goods and foods for students financially strained and for home shelters, in camps and spiritual retreats. He was not much involved into politics even though he participated in marches, for instance against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and in defense of various human rights.
“Christian values were driving me rather than political affiliation,” he says. “My goal was to be a good citizen, to become the light, salt and levain of the earth, and to bring love and God’s values wherever I was.”
Twenty five years old and with a degree in Archeology, Hajj was convinced by his parents not to pursue a doctorate in that same field but rather to travel to Detroit in the US, to live with his aunt and study Business Administration. He enrolled there at Oakland University and graduated few years later with a Master’s degree. While at the University he continued practicing his faith, attending church and praying, but his time was full, studying and working. He was also dating, feeling successful academically, socially and financially.
“I had had, however, and for a long time, a strong inner longing for a consecrated life in the church, but had always hesitated about it,” he says.
Confiding in his girlfriend, “a faithful woman with wonderful values” as he describes her, she encouraged him to know himself and to make up his mind about priesthood or about committing to a family with her. Wanting to be certain, Hajj decided to join the seminary to test himself and get a clearer idea on where to take his life. He went to the Maronite seminary in Washington, DC, kept an open attitude, and immersed himself in everything the place offered, studying theology, reading the scriptures, praying, participating in various church activities.
“Everything was telling me to be there,” he says. “I listened, stayed for 4 years, felt deeply fulfilled, was ordained priest and was assigned afterwards for one year to serve the Maronite church in Cleveland, OH.”
There, Hajj shadowed and helped the pastor, learned from him, was in charge of the church’s youth group, taught a class in Syriac and started a new group for the men of the parish, called the Sons of Mary.
“The purpose was to form the men by prayer, by scripture studies, by programs that helped them put their faith into practice, giving back to the church and to their human fellows, particularly those in need,” says Hajj.
After Cleveland, Hajj relocated to Cincinnati as the pastor of its Maronite church; this was four years ago. The Cincinnati church, which had been in existence since 1910, was the home of a large group of Christians of varying backgrounds and diverse cultures, most of them connected somehow to the Middle East. It was frequented not only by Maronites but also by individuals of other faiths such as Orthodox, Melkite, Coptic, Latin… Under Hajj’s leadership it has seen its cohesiveness increase and functions now as one united family, enriched by its differences.
Hajj maintains a good blending of the secular and religious lives of its parishioners, preparing them to be the best for themselves and for others, living their Christian values, and always putting their faith into action.
The church offers various classes in scriptures, Aramaic, art and social studies, also various activities geared to the different age categories of the parishioners. The MYA, Maronite Young Adults, ages 18 to 35, for instance, gather regularly, socialize, but also participate in programs of spiritual formation, of moral teaching, of various social justice activities such as serving in soup kitchens, helping the needy, doing actions of mercy. A movie night, a book club, speakers from out of town or from the community, present them with meaningful topics and messages, followed by enriching discussions. A new group, the MYO, Maronite Youth Organization, does the same with youth ages 12 to 18. A supportive group of women also exists to meet and pray, visit the sick, provide material support to various charitable organizations. There are also religious education classes offered every Sunday to children.
The church recently bought 2 adjacent buildings to its sanctuary. It currently uses them as educational centers but they may also become centers for charity works, even possibly living quarters for the needy elderly.
Recently, Hajj proposed to his congregation a new program, yet to be implemented, consisting of giving a certain % of the church income in charity.
“We are currently studying the structure of the program,” says Hajj, “keeping in mind the importance of not only providing fish to eat but also a fishing pole to help survive.”
With other Catholic and Orthodox local churches, Hajj founded the One Church of Mercy, a group of churches which mission is to bring together the different Christian faiths in the metropolitan Cincinnati, to know each other, participate in common rituals, work through prayer, exposure and with government agencies for the persecuted, religious or otherwise, in the Middle East. The group, started in 2015, organizes major events throughout the year. Last year, for instance, it sponsored the public viewing of the movie “Our Last Stand” which told the story of an Assyrian-American school teacher from New York, who spent her summer vacation traveling to Iraq and Syria to help raise awareness about the plight of the Christian communities (Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac) threatened by civil war and ISIS. The movie was followed by a community debate.
Last March, a Lenten prayer service for unity and religious freedom, gatheredRoman Catholics, Eastern Rite Catholics and Orthodox in appreciation of diverse, yet complimentary, rituals. The event was an effort to strengthen bonds and also pray for persecuted Christians around the world.
On Sept 14 also of this year, The Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a common divine liturgy also took place at the St Anthony of Padua church, and included an educational program on religious persecution. It also addressed, in particular, the situation of the Christians in the Holy Land.
Hajj also involved heavily his church in the 1st Cincinnati Festival of Faith which took place recently at Xavier University, and at which the church choir performed.
“We are involved with various charitable organizations such as Soup Kitchens, Food pantries… and we provide various services according to people’s needs like visiting the sick, helping parishioners at their home, etc.” says Hajj. “We add our voice to those that already exist, thus being part of the Garden of Eden and contributing to it.”
Hajj does not see himself doing things differently in the future, but rather better. The Christian mission he follows will remain the same and his actions and those he will try to impart on his church will always be after the message of the Beatitudes, the blessings that Jesus listed in the Sermon on the Mount. He points to the fact that the Cross of the Maronite Church has 8 dots, 2 at each end, which represent the 8 beatitudes.
“We, disciples of Christ, are asked to take care of the poor, the meek, etc.” says Hajj. “We have to be reminded that we are also the poor, the meek, etc. and that we need to take care of each other, walk together on this bumpy road, and contribute to a better world.”
Many of Hajj’s efforts are devoted to projects and actions that form the human and make the human a holy person, able to improve and sanctify the other, thus adding peace and justice in the name of Christ. His inspiration is his Maronite faith, also the teaching he has constantly received, to always put his faith into action.
What is the Maronite Church The Catholic Church is comprised of twenty-one Eastern and one Western (Roman) Churches. They all share the same: Dogmatic Faith, Seven Sacraments, Moral Teachings, and Unity with the Pope of Rome.Their worship, however, differs and each:
Encompasses a unique liturgy, theology, spirituality and discipline
Is characterized by its own cultural and linguistic tradition
Is guided by a Patriarch, Major Archbishop, Metropolitan or other Hierarch, who along with their Synod of Bishops are in full communion with the Pope.
The Maronite Church is one of the 21 Eastern Catholic Churches. It is headed by a Patriarch, and has over forty Bishops who shepherd the many Dioceses in Lebanon, the Middle East and throughout the world. The Patriarch governs the Church in a synodal manner with his body of bishops. He resides in Bkerke, Lebanon. The Maronite Church dates back to the early Christians of Antioch. It uses Syriac as its liturgical language, a dialect of the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. It takes its name from the hermit-priest, Saint Maron, who lived an ascetic life in Syria and died in 410 AD. Within a few years after his death, over 800 monks adopted his way of life, built the Monastery of Saint Maron on the Orontes, Syria, center of their faith, and became known as the Maronites. Later, the Muslim invasions (7th -10th Centuries), coupled with conflicts from within the Byzantine Empire, caused the Maronites to flee the plains of Syria to the natural protection of the mountains of Lebanon. By 687, they organized themselves around Saint John Maron, whom they elected Patriarch of the vacant See of Antioch, and thus developed as a distinct Church within the Catholic Church. Maronites can attend and worship in any other Catholic church. Today there are approximately 3 million Maronites throughout the world. Due to emigration since the 19th century, approximately two-thirds of them live within the worldwide Lebanese diaspora in Europe, the Americas, Australia and Africa. Approximately 1 million live in Lebanon where they represent roughly 20% of the population. The Maronites played and still play an influential role in Lebanon's politics.