The earliest information that is available on the Maronite sect was recorded by Theodoret, bishop of Cyrrhus (d. 458). Early in the sixth century, Maronite monks were foremost among the defenders of the doctrine of Chalcedon, which, owing to the controversy generated in its aftermath, brought on a permanent schism between adherents of Chalcedon and those of Monophysitism, the faith of the Jacobites and the Nestorians. In the battles that ensued with the Monophysites, Maronites lost 350 monks. Many of their monasteries were destroyed by the Monophysites. Saint Maron's monastery, however, continued to serve until the middle of the seventh century as the stronghold of the Chalcedonians as well as the center of their missionary activities in northern Syria.
In the eighth century John Maron advocated the Monothelite theory that attributed one will to Jesus, a compromise among those who stressed one or the other of the two natures of Christ, a dualism that was unacceptable to the early fathers of Christianity. Maron and his followers found themselves in opposition not only to their Christian neighbors among the Syrians, but also to the Muslim Imperium that upheld the churches that had maintained detachment from Byzantium.
Muslims had conquered Syria in the seventh century and dominated most of the known civilized world from China to France by the middle of the eighth. Maronites at this time were dubbed maradah (rebels). But the attempts of civilian authorities to suppress the Maronite monks only served to strengthen the bond between them and their lay followers, as did their use of Syriac, a derivative of Aramaic and the spoken vernacular of the region.
Heads of monasteries were invested with an episcopal character, and the people in the surrounding areas came under their direct jurisdiction. Over a period of time, the monks shaped the people's religious life and imparted a peculiar character to them, which bore the stamp of the monks' customs and traditions. This legacy has remained until today an important and enduring characteristic of the Maronite church and people, their canon law and church governance. This monastic origin explains also the persistently strong influence of the patriarch in civil and religious matters among Maronites at present. Indeed, Maronites regard their patriarch as the actual leader of their "nation."
Patriarch Anastasius II was the last Chalcedonian to reside in Antioch. He was killed in 721. Only titular heads were appointed after 721, by Constantinople, the capital of Christendom. The vacancy persisted until 742, when the Umayyad caliph, Hisham, allowed the Maronites to elect their own patriarch. In electing Stephen III, Maronites acquired control over their own destiny. An independent Maronite patriarchate evolved in consequence thereof. Historians claim that it was in 685 that Maronites acquired their first elected patriarch.
From the very beginning, their bishops took the title "of Antioch." Maronite authors dispute the argument of Eutyches (Sa īd ibn Batriq), the Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria, who claimed that the Maronites renounced their Monothelite heresy when the Crusaders showed up, early in the twelfth century. They allege that Eutyches's writings misled the Latin writer William of Tyre—the standard Latin authority on the Crusades—who wrote that the Maronites entered the Catholic church after contacts with Latin kingdoms and after renouncing Monothelitism. Although this assertion may be disputed, there is no disputing that the Maronite connection with the Latin West came via the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. The connection might have been hastened by the pressures of their Monophysite neighbors—who enjoyed influence among the Muslim caliphs of Damascus and, later, those of Baghdad—especially after the Maronites were forced to abandon their Syrian habitat for the northern mountain fastness of Lebanon, in order to escape the attacks of both Melchites (adherents of Constantinople) and Monophysites at a time when they had no contacts directly with Rome.
The first church in Mount Lebanon was established (according to Maronite writings) around 749 and was protected by a feudal system of government, which the monks organized to that end. Accordingly, the patriarch headed the "nation," assisted by bishops who served as his vicars. When Crusaders, heading to conquer Jerusalem, appeared on the coastal strip below their mountain strongholds, Maronites greeted and befriended them. Latin writers allege that Maronite contacts with Rome were broken after Pope Hormisdas responded a letter of 518 and that they were reestablished only after the visit of Jeremías al-Amshiti (1199-1230), the first Maronite patriarch to visit Rome and attend the Lateran Council, in 1215. Following this visit, he received a bull and a pallium from Pope Innocent III, signaling his integration with the Latin church. Relations with Rome were interrupted once again during the rule of the Mamluk sultans, who had completely ended the presence of Crusaders in Syria by 1298.
The canonical legislation that gives the Maronite rite its ecclesiastical church discipline and hierarchical structure is distinct from other canonical rites of the Eastern Uniate churches. What came down from the Middle Ages is enshrined in the only surviving copy of the Kitāb al-Huda (Book of Guidance), which is written in Karshuni (Arabic in Syriac script). The priest-monk Yūsuf (Joseph) Elias, the Nestorian metropolitan of Nisibis (1058-1059), and Abdullah ibn al-Tajīb (d. 1043) both assert that the Byzantine-rite Melchites and Maronites share the same doctrine on the nature of Christ, the difference being that Maronites admit one will in Christ, instead of two.
When they were cut off from the Holy See in Rome during the Mamluk era (1291-1517), and when they found that the Kitāb al-Huda no longer provided sufficient guidance, Maronites adopted the canons of the Coptic ibn al-Assāl. Avoiding such contacts was prudent even after the Mongol invasions and the subsequent attempts by their khans to elicit Latin Europe's support against the Muslim Mamluks. Contacts were reestablished during the patriarchate of John Jaʿjaʿ (1404-1445), before the Maronite prelates were recognized formally as patriarchs of Antioch. Pope Paul III (1534-1549) sent Franciscans to teach the Maronite clergy Latin and to instruct them in the Latin rite for administering the sacraments. When the Mamluks were ousted by the Ottomans in 1517, Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) introduced the millet system (a transformation of the dhimmi status that was enjoyed by Christian sects during the Arabian caliphates). The Maronites were able to govern their own internal affairs even though they themselves were not officially accorded the millet status, which status was first granted in 1453 to the Greek Orthodox patriarch, following the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453 and, later, in 1461, to the Armenian patriarch. Uniate churches received such recognition only after the Ottomans were compelled to grant it by French and papal pressures in the seventeenth century, in consequence of serious Ottoman military reverses in Europe.
In 1584 Pope Gregory XIII founded a Maronite college in Rome to train their clergy, and among the brilliant scholars it produced, many years later, were the Assemani (al-Sim āni) brothers, one of whom (Yūsuf), served as custodian of the Vatican library. They were among the principal informants of the West about Eastern Christianity. Before the creation of the college, the Maronite church had maintained its essential character, that of a monastic institution. Indeed, the patriarch still resides in the monastery of Qannubin in the sacred valley of Kadisiya (al-Qādisīyah) when he is not at the official residence in Bakirköy.
Three synods (1580, 1596, 1598) were convened by the Maronite patriarch at the urging of the papal legates for the purpose of introducing the legislation of Trent and the Latin liturgy, which called for relaxing their fasting rules during Lent and other changes in liturgical customs. Patriarch Yūsuf al-Rizzi had already introduced the Gregorian calendar. In the atmosphere of tolerance that prevailed late in the seventeenth century, new monasteries and a number of European missions were established in the East. Patriarch al-Duwayhi in 1700 organized the Maronite order of Saint Anthony, to further buttress the monastic attributes of the church.
Following the Council of Trent, in 1562, efforts were made to Latinize the Eastern churches. Survivors of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, which had been ended by Saladin, took refuge among the Maronites and were allegedly responsible for preparing the way for the Latinization of their church. Latinization efforts took on a decisive character in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the advent of Latin missions helped speed up the process. An added impetus followed the establishment of Maronite orders in the aftermath of the Lebanese synod of 1736.
In 1734 Yūsuf al-Khāzin and his bishops requested the Holy See to send them an apostolic visitor to help them reform their church. The pope sent al-Sim āni as his personal legate to call a synod of the Maronite hierarchy and to preside over it. The synod was held in Rayfun in upper Kisrawān (present-day north-central Lebanon), on 14 September 1736. Customs that were first introduced by the Crusaders were codified, and the synod ended with the Latinization of church liturgical procedures and the administration of the sacraments.
This Mount Lebanon Synod (as it came to be known) split the Maronites. Its enactments generated a five-year crisis that drew in even the Druze ruler of Mount Lebanon (Emir Milhim Shihāb). A battle was fought between the "Integrists" and the "Reformists," and peace was restored only after the pope took into account Maronite attachment to their time-honored traditions and decreed that they could keep their old customs and liturgy. Maronites were content now to return to their old disciplines. They were permitted to conduct in Syriac their "Mass of Saint James." Their clergy were allowed to marry, elect their own patriarch, and keep the hereditary title "of Antioch." In 1744 Pope Benedict XIV formally confirmed on the current patriarch the title of "Maronite Patriarch of Antioch."
In spite of the controversy it generated, the Synod of Mount Lebanon is remembered as a landmark in Maronite history, in that it led to the formai establishment of the present Maronite diocese. Only Aleppo, however, and sometimes Nicosia and Damascus, had resident bishops—a surviving memory of numerous pre-Islamic eparchies of the Maronites in the Near East.
The austere life they led was noted by a visiting French diplomat, Chevalier Laurent d'Avrieux, who described Maronite life-style as being influenced by monastic institutions (1735). For centuries, they had abided by spiritual and social ways that had been shaped by their monastic environment. Churches were erected in northern Lebanon by private families and were largely the mortmains of these families, which dated back to the twelfth century, in Batrun, Jubayl, and Jubbat Bsharrī.
Seminaries were established for the purpose of training priests—the earliest in 1624, in Hawga, followed by another in Aleppo in the second half of the seventeenth century. They attracted scholars and novices, and more were to follow in Mount Lebanon. The 1818 synod made new efforts to regenerate clerical studies. A major central seminary was established at Ayn Waraga. After returning to Lebanon in 1831, the Jesuits opened an interritual seminary in Ghazir in 1844, which was converted in 1875 to the University of Saint Joseph and relocated in East Beirut. In 1881 it became the first pontifical university in the East.