BEIRUT: The Synod of Maronite bishops will convene on March 9 to elect a successor to Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir, whose resignation was accepted last week by Pope Benedict XVI, the Council of Maronite Bishops announced Wednesday.
Bishops will gather in a spiritual conclave at the seat of the Maronite patriarchate in Bkirki next Thursday at 6 p.m. in isolation from the outside world for a 15-day period to elect the church’s 77th patriarch, a statement released following the council’s meeting said.
The meeting of the Council of Maronite Bishops, held on the first Wednesday of each month, was chaired by Sfeir in his last such act as patriarch.
Out of 40 Maronite bishops presiding over dioceses throughout the world, 38 are expected to attend the spiritual conclave.
The head of the United States Diocese, Bishop John Chedid, and Argentina’s Saint Maroun Diocese head Charbel Merhi, are expected to miss the gathering due to illness, a source close to the church told The Daily Star.
Though both Chedid and Merhi have passed the retirement age of 75, they could still vote if they attend.
Unlike bishops, the patriarch has no retirement age and thus, a retired bishop could assume the post of patriarch.
The source added that up to now, a number of bishops appear as favorites in the race to head Lebanon’s influential Maronite church, the largest Catholic Church in the Middle East.
Beirut Bishop Boulos Matar, Baalbek-Deir al-Ahmar Bishop Semaan Atallah and Jbeil Bishop Beshara Rai seem to be the most popular among their colleagues to assume the post of patriarch, though the vote outcome is still far from being guaranteed in favor of any candidate, the source said.
Another source close to the Church dismissed the possibility of the election of a retired bishop, saying the Vatican leans toward an experienced but relatively young bishop who is not older than 70.
The source added that the Vatican was also in favor of a patriarch considered as a consensus figure among rival Christian parties in the March 8 and 14 camps in a bid to bridge the gap between the bickering parties.
Sfeir, who is 91, has been a staunch critic of Syrian intervention in Lebanese affairs; under his leadership, the Council of Maronite Bishops issued a firm call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2000, five years before their actual departure in 2005.
Also a critic of Hezbollah’s weapons, Sfeir continues to stress the importance of restricting the possession of weapons to state institutions.
However, Sfeir’s positions have drawn criticism from Christian members of the March 8 coalition, particularly Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun and Marada Movement head Suleiman Franjieh, who have accused the patriarch of siding with March 14 parties.
Sfeir’s resignation was accepted Saturday during a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI on the sidelines of a visit to the Vatican to unveil a statue of the Maronite Church founder Saint Maroun on the outer wall of St. Peter’s Basilica. Sfeir was elected Patriarch of Antioch for the Maronites in 1986.
While Bkirki denies taking sides with any of the two camps, and has constantly reiterated that it is open to all parties, the relations between the patriarch and both Aoun and Franjieh have witnessed many tense periods.
While sources from both the March 14 and 8 camps say each side secretly hopes for the election of a patriarch close to its ranks, politicians underline before the public that political inclinations have no influence over the outcome of the patriarchal elections.
Filling a vacancy at Bkirki: Rules govern how the process works
BEIRUT: The Synod of Maronite Bishops, which is comprised of 40 members, gather within a one-month period at Bkirki, the seat of the patriarchate, in a spiritual conclave to elect a new patriarch after the seat becomes vacant.
The vacancy of the seat follows the death of the patriarch or the approval of his resignation by the Synod or by the Vatican.
Four rounds of elections take place on a daily basis over a 15-day period: two are held in the morning and two in the afternoon.
There must be a quorum of two-thirds of the attending bishops for a new patriarch to be elected.
The quorum required to begin elections is calculated at two-thirds of the bishops capable of attending the conclave. Those who miss the conclave as a result of illness or any other valid reason preventing them from attending are not counted when the two-thirds quorum is calculated.
If the bishops fail to elect a patriarch after 15 days, the issue is put before the Vatican, with the pope left to decide over the matter.
If a bishop is elected, the Synod declares him patriarch and the Vatican is informed as soon as possible of the outcome of the vote.
The next step for the newly elected patriarch is to seek the official approval of the Vatican as soon as possible.
Before the nominee receives the final approval of the Vatican, the newly elected patriarch lacks the right to convene the Synod or the right to ordain bishops.
If the newly elected patriarch is not a bishop, the result of the vote is kept secret, even from the elected cleric until he is notified of a decision to elevate him to the rank of bishop before he is declared patriarch.
The elected cleric must accept the post within two days or else his election is deemed void.
The longest-serving bishop, currently Roland Abu Jawdeh, presides over the first round of the Synod’s elections, and then hands over the task to the bishop who secures the largest number of votes in the first electoral round.