Posted June 13, 2005 in Memorials:
Archbishop Joseph M. Raya has died at 88

Archbishop Joseph Raya, the first “Associate Priest” of the Madonna House Apostolate, died peacefully on Friday, June 10, 2005 at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, Canada after a long illness. May the memory of Archbishop Joseph Raya who is worthy of praise remain with us forever.

Archbishop Joseph M. Raya (1916–2005)

Former Metropolitan of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee

“I was not yet born when my blood started praying. Our Melkite mothers believe that the water of their womb bubbles with the flame of the Holy Spirit. The day my mother knew she was entrusted with a new life, she started singing and praying every day the office of my Byzantine Church. She sang those melodies all during the nine months of that happy expectation… the time of the Resurrection that year must have been more glorious than glory, because my whole being, my flesh and my sinews, for the past seventy years of my life (and I hope this will continue until my last breath), have thrilled with a special tingling whenever I hear or sing, ‘Christ is risen!’”

Archbishop Joseph Raya was permeated with the Gospel message of love. Having heard the hymns of the Resurrection while yet in his mother’s womb, it is no wonder that, early in life, he committed himself to bear witness to the joy that is the very heart of Christian faith: the glorious reality of Christ risen from the dead. This conviction and this joy radiated from every cell of his being, in his preaching, writing and actions, in his dedication to the Byzantine Church, and his determination to live the arduous Gospel message of love at whatever cost to himself.

Born in Zahle, Lebanon on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, 1916, Joseph Raya was nurtured as a child by the Byzantine liturgy and traditions. After primary studies in Paris and seminary studies with the White Fathers in Jerusalem, he was ordained to the priesthood on July 20, 1941. After being assigned to teach history and philosophy at St. Anne’s Minor Seminary in Zahle, he was appointed by his Patriarch to serve as superintendent of schools in Cairo Egypt and later as director of the Patriarchal College there.

In 1948 Fr. Raya came to the United States, serving first as assistant pastor of St. Ann’s Melkite Church in Patterson, New Jersey and. from 1952–1967 as the pastor of St. George’s parish in Birmingham, Alabama. The new parish church, which he designed and built, won the prize for the best architectural design in the state for 1960.

More than a decade before the Second Vatican Council authorized the celebration of the Roman Catholic liturgy in the vernacular, Fr. Joseph recognized and responded to this need in his own rite. Byzantine faith is imparted largely through liturgy and the language of the Melkite Church in America, ever since its foundation 75 years earlier, had been Arabic. Its youth, however, were now primarily English speaking and were becoming increasingly alienated from a liturgy they could barely understand, if at all. But Fr. Raya first had to learn English himself! To acquire the tools for ministry in his new country, this university graduate and accomplished scholar joined the ranks of elementary school pupils for two years!

In 1958 his beautiful English translation of the Byzantine Missal was published by his close friend and collaborator, Baron Jose de Vinck. Ten years later, their joint Byzantine Daily Worship, covering the whole liturgical year, with an introduction written by the Orthodox Patriarch Athanagoras of Constantinople, found wide use not only among Byzantine Catholics, but also in Orthodox monasteries and theological schools.

From 1955–1965 Fr. Joseph was the official spokesman for the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem at the United States liturgical conferences and conventions. In 1962 and 1963, he was appointed to the Curia of the Melkite Holy Patriarch to serve as a research aide at Vatican II.

As a member of a minority rite in the Catholic Church, and as an immigrant in the United States, Fr. Raya was no stranger to prejudice. More than anything, however, his commitment to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s was a response to what he saw as the struggle for the freedom and dignity of the human being created in the image and likeness of God. Defying public opinion, he brought African-Americans into his Birmingham church. He was a friend of Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr., and several times marched at the latter’s side. Not surprisingly, he was twice beaten badly by the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1967 the Holy Synod of the Three Patriarchates elected Fr. Joseph Raya as Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee. His Episcopal consecration took place in Birmingham, Alabama on October 20, 1968. Haifa, Israel became his home.

The Archbishop later characterized his years in Israel as a time of rediscovering his oriental, Semitic soul. The Fathers of the Church became his daily bread. “Their writings,” he wrote, “illumined all that a priest of God wishes to have come alive in Him. Heaven left my head to dwell in my heart.”

Those were the years that followed the Six Days’ War, years of transition and turmoil for Israel. Archbishop Raya worked uncompromisingly to build peace, justice and love between Christians, Muslims and Jews. With leadership unusual for a Christian Arab cleric of that time, but fully consonant with his personality and convictions, he demanded that the Israeli government respect the rights of the Palestinians, especially those living in Israel. Never hesitating to translate ideals into action, in August 1972 he led 24,000 Arabs and Jews in the historic Peace March to the Knesset, demanding justice for the villagers of Ikrit and Kfar-Berem, who had lost their homes and property.

Committed as he was to a Gospel vision encompassing all peoples and races, it was not surprising that Archbishop Joseph was misunderstood and attacked by the very people he strove to unite. But his was a prophetic witness. When he resigned his See in 1974 over a matter of principle, he left seeds that would bear lasting fruit for the Melkite Church and for Israel. In the ensuing decades, the laypeople and priests he had formed would devote their own lives, in the land Christ had walked, to implementing the vision of Gospel love, service and forgiveness, which their beloved Archbishop had planted in their hearts.

Returning to North America, Archbishop Raya took up permanent residence at the Madonna House Training Center in Combermere, Ontario. In 1959, he had become the first associate priest of this community of lay men, lay women and priests founded by Russian-born Catherine de Hueck Doherty. From the beginning, Catherine had recognized in him a person who could help incarnate her vision of a Church that breathed with the two lungs of East and West.

The Archbishop not only celebrated and taught the Byzantine liturgy; he lived and breathed it with his whole being, which “overflowed with God,” as someone described it. “God is not an old bachelor in the sky!” he would insist,

“God is relationship! God is Trinity! The God of our Christian revelation is…a social Life, an infinite superabundance of life… He is the fullness of communion and thereby, the source of all communion.”

The Divine Liturgy, which he celebrated every second Sunday whenever he was in Combermere, was the expression of his whole faith.

“God-Trinity is so awesome that we can reach Him only through wonder, amazement and poetical celebrations. This is the main object of the Divine and Holy Liturgy. God-Love is the truth that can reveal, uncover and make clear and credible every tenet that Christianity believes and teaches.

“Through the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the celebrant restores to the world its full spiritual dimension by opening it to God’s mystery: love. He confirms the divine dignity and infinite worth of the human person, body and soul, heart and mind.”

During the next seven years, Archbishop Joseph taught at Fordham University in New York City, St. Paul’s Seminary in Ottawa, Christ the King Seminary and Franciscan University in Buffalo, and at the Theological Institute of St. Paul in Lebanon. He wrote poetry, composed music in the Greek and Arab traditions, translated ancient liturgical works into English, and wrote articles in French, English and Arabic for religious periodicals. In 1983 he was delegated by the Holy Synod to renew theological studies in Melkite seminaries and monasteries in accordance with Byzantine traditions. He wrote an entire theological curriculum in Arabic, called Byzantine Theology, for Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Syria. He also served as president of the commission working for the establishment of Melkite eparchies in the United States.

At the call of his Church, Archbishop Raya returned to war-torn Lebanon in the 1980’s to look after the spiritual needs of priests, nuns and lay people whose lives had been shattered by war and hatred. In 1985 and 86 he taught at the seminary and assisted the Bishop of Beirut. Two years later, he agreed to head the Greek Catholic archdiocese of Paneas in Marjeyeoun, in the southern part of Lebanon. Symbolically, the Archbishop began planting trees — thousands of trees — and vineyards. This action gave people hope for the future and the courage to commit themselves to their land. He offered them the freedom of the Gospel.

On his return to Canada in 1990, the Archbishop continued to write. He had the rare ability to grasp the essence of the Gospel and Church life and to transmit it simply, but with his own inimitable verve. Abundance of Love and Byzantine Church and Culture were followed by Crowning, Transfiguration, Theophany, Theotokos, Christmas, Divine Liturgy (with Baron de Vinck), and finally, in 2003, Celebration.

In 2005, Archbishop Raya was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

A man of extraordinary inner freedom and spontaneity, Archbishop Joseph stepped outside the usual conventions of spirituality and set us on fire, again and again, with his vision of the beauty of all God’s creation, reflected in each human face. As one young person put it, “He sees beyond the physical reality. He sees the glorious potential in every person. His love makes people feel beautiful!”

“If we allow our vision to be transformed by the Gospel, our eyes become so focused and our hearts become so attuned, that we recognize God in every way he chooses to reveal himself… in the arts, in the sciences, in the joy of living.”

The Archbishop had great difficulty grappling with old age and infirmity. He refused to reduce the scandal of illness and encroaching death to theological formulas. The words of Dylan Thomas might have been written for him: “Do not go gently into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day, rage, rage against the dying of the light!”

Kyr Joseph, beloved Archbishop, from the tribulation of these last years, you have now emerged into the splendor you proclaimed and sang all your life! You have truly “hung your baptismal garment in the closet of eternity,” as you wrote in Celebration, and “recovered your humanity in all its beauty and glory, in the company of a host of companions, and risen again out of the grave transformed with a special glory…”

(Based on the research of Lesya Sabada, Department of Religious Studies and Anthropology, University of Saskatchewan.) 

Archbishop Joseph M. Raya

“I shall not die, I shall live, and recount His deeds.” — Psalm 118

Born: 15 August 1916
Ordained: 20 July 1940
Madonna House Associate Priest: 1 July 1959
Consecrated Archbishop of Akko, Haifa, Nazareth and All Galilee: 20 October 1968
Died: 10 June 2005

“Give a little, it costs a lot. Give a lot, it costs a little. Give everything, it costs nothing at all.” — Archbishop Raya


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