BEIRUT: A man of great faith and devotion to the church, a modest and caring friend and a person hungry for knowledge, were some of the ways friends of Patriarch Beshara Rai described the head of the Maronite Church on the eve of his inauguration Mass at Bkirki. Rai’s classmates at Our Lady of Jamhour College spoke to The Daily Star about the patriarch’s years as a student before he left for Rome to continue his theological studies, a year prior to his graduation.
Attorney at law Fadi Ziade and historian Hareth Bustani, who have known Rai since grade seven, said the patriarch was known for his serenity and calm.
“He was a serious student. Learning was very important to him and you would always see him with a book in hand,” Ziade said.
“He was modest at school, friendly and warm-hearted,” Ziade added.
Bustani said Rai, who was four years older than his classmates when he enrolled at Jamhour college, acted like an older brother, supporting his peers and helping to solve their problems.
Prior to his transfer to Jamhour, Rai spent several years in the Mariamite Maronite order of monks, in which he enrolled at an early age.
“What distinguished the patriarch was his warm heart, his friendliness and his eagerness to help others,” said Bustani, whose relative, father Louis Bustani, headed the Mariamite order.
Bustani added that Rai was a fast learner, a diplomat and a man of dialogue. “He excelled in studying languages and was a talented writer with a beautiful style,” Bustani said.
Besides his academic skills, Rai’s humanitarian values drew people closer to him, both Ziade and Bustani said.
“He was everyone’s friend. He did not differentiate between people,” Bustani said.
As for Rai’s attitude in class, his colleagues said the patriarch, who used to attend school in a black vestment, was a composed, attentive and serious student.
Asked to speak about a particular incident that crossed their mind when speaking of Rai, Ziade and Bustani separately recalled the same event.
A French teacher randomly called out the name “frère Rai,” French for “Brother Rai,” and expelled him from class, to set an example to his colleagues after the instructor failed to spot noisy students. “Rai stood up and walked out without protesting, and even though he was not among the noisy students, he did not divulge their names,” Bustani said.
Rai, who graduated from Rome with a Ph.D. in Canon law, remains in frequent contact with his classmates, whom he sees in social, academic and religious events, Ziade and Bustani said.
Bustani said that several students from the class of 1963 arrived at Bkirki from as far away as France and Qatar to congratulate Rai on his election as patriarch.
“This is how much his classmates were attached to him,” Bustani said.
Bustani added that Rai is a man of principles, which were always based on his belief in Lebanon as a model nation. “His faith in Lebanon is infinite, he never compromises on principles and his only party is Lebanon,” Bustani said.
Bustani said the patriarch had always boosted the morale of his colleagues when Lebanon was facing difficulties and they were losing hope.
“Though he rarely talks politics in social gatherings, when he does, the patriarch seeks to ease tension,” Bustani said. “He is a diplomat.”
Ziade said he always saw in Rai a future patriarch, describing him as “the man up to the task of preserving the Christian community and its role in a region witnessing turmoil.”
Ziade’s knowledge of the patriarch goes beyond their school years as he used to meet with Rai on a regular basis after Ziade’s uncle, retired Beirut Bishop Ignatius Ziade, tasked Rai with the management of the Priest House in Maad, Jbeil – a residence catering for the needs of elderly clergy and receiving religious pilgrims.
“I always believed and told friends that Bishop Rai would one day assume the post of patriarch,” Ziade said.
Rai, who headed the Jbeil diocese for the past 21 years, obtained a sweeping majority of votes from the bishops who participated in the electoral process.
A lecturer at several universities affiliated with the Catholic Church and a high-profile monk known for his frequent media appearances, Rai’s election comes at critical time in Lebanese politics, particularly for the Christian community, which is suffering from internal divisions.
Rai’s friends have stressed their confidence in the new patriarchate’s ability to overcome challenges, institutionalize and modernize the church as the foundation to safeguard Lebanon as a model of coexistence in the Middle East.