The circular interior of St. Ephrem’s church might serve as an eclectic museum of Catholic devotional art. So many styles, drawn from so many traditions: a golden mosaic rendering of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help; sweetly pious etchings of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus; brightly painted plaster statues of St. Francis, St. Therese, and St. Joseph. Marble-relief Stations of the Cross that would be right at home in a Gothic cathedral. A modern-day icon of the Cure of Ars — a Western saint portrayed in an Eastern style.
Amid all this varied display, it would be easy to miss the small evergreen in the Sanctuary, hung with gold ornaments and...photographs of priests? But Father Mouannes does not miss it — he pauses after ascending the stairs to turn a couple of the photos so that the congregation may see the faces. And before the beginning of Mass, the deacon announces that the Maronite Church spends the Sundays leading up to the penitential season of Lent by remembering the dead, starting with “our deceased priests.”
“We connect ourselves with the Church,” explains Mouannes. “We are the Church on Earth that is working very hard in the battle. We connect with the Church that is suffering in Purgatory or with the Church in heaven. We are one body, and we stop and pray for priests.”
Priests, as the tiny choir reminds us at the outset, “guide us on the way, leading us to heaven.” Their style and intonation seem much closer to that of a Jewish cantor than a Roman Catholic scholar, especially when they sing in Syriac: “Qadeeshat aloho; Qadeeshat hyeltono; Qadeeshat lomoyouto.” (“Holy are You, God; Holy are You, O Strong One; Holy are You, O Immortal One.”) And when the Peace is passed from the hands of the priest to the hands of the deacon to the hands of the congregation in the pews, I can’t help thinking of Jews touching their prayer shawls to the Torah as it is processed along the aisles.
Much of the liturgy is given over to prayer, and much of that to pleas for mercy and cleansing and forgiveness. (“Do not hand us over to the burning flame that causes weeping and mourning, affliction and torment...rather, have mercy on us.”) The devil also comes in for a number of mentions (“Deliver us from the evil powers who wrestle with us”), and Mouannes’s homily frankly proclaims that “Satan does exist, my friends.... There are only two authorities in the world...the authority of God, and the authority of evil. Those two authorities are in battle. There is no neutrality in nature. I’ll tell you why people don’t talk about it...they don’t want to battle anymore with the world and with evil. But I want you to realize that you are in a battle.”
Mouannes says that we are in the battle because Jesus came “to restore the authority of God. Who is Jesus? The highest priest — it’s written in the letter to the Hebrews. God gave us the power and the authority through the priesthood — priesthood is the authority on Earth. That’s why, when people try to destroy your faith, they attack the priests first.” And quoting from the Catholic Catechism, he says, “The whole community of believers is, as such, priestly. The faithful exercise their baptismal priesthood through their participation, each according to his own vocation, in Christ’s mission as Priest, Prophet, and King.” And if we share in Jesus’ priesthood, we must join the fight.
“Use your power,” he exhorts. “Pray the Mass with all your heart, and imagine you can change the world.”
When I introduce myself to Mouannes after the Mass, he grins and says, “You must come on February 9 at 7:30 p.m. It’s the feast of Saint Maron, who founded the Maronite Church. This will be the 1600th anniversary of his death.”
What happens when we die?
From Mouannes’s homily: “One day, Jesus will ask you, ‘What have you done with this little talent I have given you? I gave it to you to be a priest. What have you done with it? You ran away? You didn’t understand it? You ignored it? That’s not an answer. No excuses.’”
From the sung prayers for priests: “May hands that transformed bread and wine into Your flesh and blood now hold branches of praise as they meet You.”
From the liturgy: “...the guardians of Your Church deserve a memorial eternally written in the book of Your heavenly kingdom.... Grant peace and serenity to the priests who have gone before us to Your holy dwellings.... Let none of Your deceased ministers be tempted by the devil and his legions. May the marks of Your holy Mysteries shelter and protect them on their journey to You.”
750 Medford Street, El Cajon
Denomination: Maronite Catholic
Founded locally: 1990
Senior pastor: Nabil Mouannes
Congregation size: 300 families
Staff size: n/a
Sunday school enrollment: n/a
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal to formal
Diversity: majority Lebanese, but mixed
Sunday worship: 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 5 minutes