Feast Day: March 23
Prayer to Saint Rafka
We give you thanks, 0 Lord, for the example you have given us in the life of your servant, Rafka. She has reminded us of the necessity of suffering with you. Your cross remains a scandal to unbelievers and to those who doubt, but we believe in you and confess that the folly of your cross is wisdom for us. Your apostles were shocked when you told of your passion and death; that you had to go up to Jerusalem to suffer and die on the cross. Others asked you to come down from the cross so that they may believe in you. Yet you continue to draw us to your cross and ask us to follow in your path. Rafka heard your call and offered herself to you in the silence of the convent and through a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Because of her great love, she wished to be united with you, her Spouse, who hung upon the tree of the cross. Daily, she bore the cross and meditated on the words of the Apostle: “We are children, heirs of God, heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him as to be glorified with him.” Drawn to the light of the cross, you became the light for her eyes, even as the light of the world dimmed before her. As you were transfixed on the cross in suffering, so your servant Rafka suffered paralysis and great pain. And now, 0 Lord, we pray that her joy, and the inner peace she experienced in sharing in your passion, may give us comfort and hope in the face of our own sufferings. May your Church always proclaim that in your cross, there is true life and salvation. May your convents and monasteries be houses of prayer and sacrifices, channels of grace for all your people. And one day may we join Rafka in heaven, and glorify you, your Father, and your Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
Sister Rafqa (Rebecca) El-Choboq El Rayes, a Maronite Catholic Lebanese nun, was beatified as Blessed Rafqa on November 17, 1985 and canonized as Saint Rafqa on 10 June 2001 in both instances by His Holiness Pope John Paul II. In 1885, at the age of 53, Sister Rafqa's wish and repeated prayers had finally been answered - the desire to participate in the sufferings of Christ. She began to suffer numerous and extreme violent pains for the remaining 29 years of her life. She is a striking example for us of how suffering can be lived with joy but only through total submission to God. She is "The Little Flower of Lebanon" for hope and intercession to God for divine assistance. The miracles which are now recorded and verified by the Vatican are testament to her help.
Saint Rafqa was born on June 29, 1832 in Himlaya, a Maronite village in the Lebanese mountains near Bikfaya. Her baptismal name was Boutrosiya (pronounced in Arabic as the feminine of Peter) having been born on the feast day of St Peter. She was an only child of her father Mrad El Rayes and her mother Rafqa Gemayel. Her mother died when she was 7 years old and her father later re-married. Civil war in the 1840's in Lebanon caused economic hardship. To help her father, Boutrosiya became a maid for three years in the home of Assad and Helena El-Badaui both in B'Abda Lebanon and Damascus Syria. According to the El Badaui family she was a "model of purity". She was devoted to the Most Holy Virgin and prayed morning and night having learnt the devotion from the sweet heart of her maternal mother.
At the age of 14 her father called her to return home with the intention to marry her. More than one suitor presented himself. One day fetching water at the well in her village she heard a fierce quarrel between her stepmother (who wanted her brother to marry Boutrosiya) and her maternal aunt (who wanted her son to marry her). Disheartened by the struggle between the two, she asked God to free her from the situation. On her 21st birthday she entered the convent of the Mariamite sisters in Bikfaya. Shortly thereafter her father and stepmother attempted to take her back home but she refused. Her father never saw her again.
After one year of postulancy, Boutrosiya became a novice on St Maroun's feast day, February 9 1855. She pronounced her religious vows in 1856 in Ghazir. For 7 years she performed kitchen work during the day and studied Arabic, calligraphy and mathematics at night. For the next 11 years she taught school girls in Deir-El-Qamar, Jbeil (Byblos) and Ma'ad. During the time of the massacres of the Christians in the Chouf Mountains she saved a young boy by hiding him in her gown (habit) and later herself hid with other sisters in a stable. Sister Boutrosiya was deeply affected by the massacres. In 1871 at the age of 39 she went to the monastery of St Simon in the village of Aitu near Ehden to become a cloistered nun rather than a teaching nun. It was at that time she adopted her name in religion as the name of her mother Rafqa.
The convent was of the Baladiya Order (The Lebanese Maronite Order). She was drawn to this order by a dream where a man with a long white beard carrying a staff like a "T" at the tip told her twice "become a nun in the Baladiya Order". She later learnt that the old man in her dream was St Anthony the Great who carries a baton with a T-shape tip made from a branch of a tree. Saint Anthony is the model of monastic life for the Baladiya Order. This cloistered order follows the monastic practical and living values of obedience, chastity, poverty, prayer, work, mission and communal living. At the age of 41 after 2 years novitiate, Sister Rafqa made her solemn vows in 1873 dedicating her remaining life on earth to a life of asceticism and contemplation.
On the first Sunday of October in 1885 at the age of 53, on the feast of the Holy Rosary, Sister Rafqa made the following prayer to God: "O my God, why are you distant from me and have abandoned me? You don't visit me with sickness. Have you perhaps abandoned me?". She desired to share in the sufferings of Christ and his crucifixion. That same night she felt a violent pain to her head which spread to her eyes. No doctor could alleviate her sufferings. One American doctor removed her eye without anaesthetic. She calmly said to the doctor: "I am in communion with the Passion of Christ. May God preserve your hands doctor. May God repay you". Enduring immense suffering she became totally blind shortly thereafter.
In 1897, at the age of 65 Sister Rafqa and five other nuns transferred to a new convent of Mar Youssef of Jrabta (St Joseph) in the Batrun region. Her requests of suffering continued. Gradually she lost weight and paralysis spread to her whole body with complete disfunction to all joints. The whole time she never complained and thanked God for the pains and His holy will. In a 1981 medical report based on the evidence presented in the Canonical Process, three specialists diagnosed the most likely cause as tuberculosis with ocular localisation and multiple bony excrescencies. This disease causes the most unbearable pain.
Many of the details outlined above come from the fact that Sister Rafqa under obedience and order by the superior Sister Doumit told her life story which she previously refused because she was so humble. After asking for absolution and plenary indulgence Sister Rafqa died on March 23, 1914 at the age of 82. She suffered intolerable pain for 29 years. On one occasion Mother Superior asked Sister Rafqa whether she wished she could see. Rafqa stated that she would like to have vision just for an hour to see Mother Superior. At that moment Rafqa saw and because of her Superior's doubt Rafqa miraculously described in detail the items and colours in the room. On another occasion, on the feast of Corpus Christi, Sister Rafqa blind and paralysed left the bed and dragged herself alone to the Chapel to join the other nuns for the adoration much to their disbelief.
The same phenomenon happened over Rafqa's tomb as happened over that of St Charbel immediately following his burial in 1898. A number of persons from neighbouring villages witnessed a splendid bright light coming from the tomb. Also, four days after Rafqa's death, Mother Superior, Sister Doumit was instantly cured of a large cyst in her throat which for 8 years had even made it difficult for her to drink any fluid. Whilst asleep Mother Superior heard a knock on the door and a voice say "Take dirt from the grave of Rafqa and put it on your throat". The next morning having checked that none of the other sisters bothered her, Sister Doumit proceeded to the grave of Rafqa and took a handful of dirt, mixed it with water and placed it on the cyst. She then felt her throat and instantly found no trace of the cyst.
Since then numerous persons who have eaten the dirt from around her grave have been miraculously cured. Between 1926 and 1952, the number of miracles and graces obtained through the intercession of Rafqa numbered 2,689 and are recorded in detail with medical evidence in six volumes kept at the convent in Jrabta. The miracle put forward for the beatification of Sister Rafqa was the instantaneous, complete, definitive and scientifically inexplicable curing of a Lebanese woman named Elizabeth En-Nakhel from Tourza in North Lebanon who was suffering from uterine cancer. Elizabeth was cured through Rafqa in 1938 and lived for 28 years more. Rafqa's cause for beatification was put to Rome earlier with other miracles in 1925 with the causes of the future Blessed Hardini and Saint Charbel. Sister Rafqa's beatification took place on 17 November 1985.
Not long after hearing of the beatification of Rafqa as Blessed, Mr and Mrs Sami and Remond Rbayz looked to Rafqa to cure their daughter Celine. Celine was born on 10 May 1983 and between the age of 2 and 3 was undergoing chemotherapy for a malignant cancerous tumour in her kidney, had her kidney removed, suffered severe nose and ear bleeds and had a malignant tumour in her liver. Her parents took soil from Blessed Rafqa's tomb and mixed it in soup for Celine and shortly after took Celine to Rafqa's grave and cut a piece of Celine's hair and buried it in the soil. On returning to the hospital 3 days later for the scheduled operation to remove the tumour in the liver the doctor astonished concluded after tests that the tumour had disappeared and the operation was no longer required. Since then Celine has lived a normal life. It is this miracle which has caused Rafqa's sanctification to Sainthood. At the canonisation in Rome by Holy Father John Paul II on 10 June 2001 Celine was aged 23.
(Quoted from "The Lebanese Maronite Saints" (written in 1999) by Dom Joseph Mahfouz, O.L.M., Maronite Bishop of Brazil, Ex-Postulator of Beatification Causes). "It has been 85 years since our Blessed died at the age of 82. She is dead but her example continues to live, particularly during the rough times that the Lebanese had endured during the war from 1975 to 1990. The message of the nun Rafqa to every Lebanese, as well as to every Christian, is that in the midst of suffering is the virtue of patience and total submission to Divine Providence must prevail. A baptized person, whether consecrated or lay, who is seeking Jesus Christ without the cross, will find the cross without Jesus Christ. Our Blessed teaches us that with Christ and through Christ, the cross - the various sufferings in life - become the font of joy and happiness.
What an honour for Lebanon! CHARBEL, RAFQA and NIMATULLAH AL-HARDINI: they are "three beautiful figures of sanctity" of the Church of Christ. They proclaimed to the whole world that the land of the Maronites is a fertile earth of sanctity and that Lebanon was and will always be a HOLY LAND. The feast day of St Rafqa is celebrated on 23 March.