Rafqa Pietra Choboq Ar-Rayès

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Saint Rafqa (Rafka)
Born June 29, 1832
Died March 23, 1914
convent of Saint Joseph Jrebta, Lebanon
Venerated in Maronite Church
Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Catholic Churches
Beatified November 16, 1985 by Pope John Paul II
Canonized June 10, 2001, Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy by Pope John Paul II
Feast March 23
St Rafka ill in bed in her latter days

Rafqa Pietra Choboq Ar-Rayès (Arabic: رفقا بطرسيّة شبق ألريّس, June 29, 1832 – March 23, 1914), also known as Saint Rafka (Arabic name for Rebecca), is a Lebanese Maronite saint canonized by Pope John Paul II on June 10, 2001.

Birth and Youth[edit]

She was born in Himlaya on 29 June 1832 on the Feast of St. Peter. She was baptised as Boutrossieh (pronounced in Arabic as the feminine of Peter).[1] She was the only child of Saber Mourad El Rayess and Rafqa Gemayel. Her mother died when she was seven years of age. In 1843, her father experienced financial difficulties and sent her to work as a servant for four years in Damascus at the home of Assaad Al-Badawi. She returned home in 1847 to find that her father had remarried[2]

When Boutrossieh was 14 years old her stepmother wanted her to marry her brother, and her maternal aunt wanted her to marry her son. Boutrossieh did not want to marry either of the men and this caused a great deal of discord in her family. One day, while she was coming back from the fountain, holding her jar, she overheard them arguing. She asked God to help her deal with the problem. She then decided to become a nun and went straight to the convent of Our Lady of Liberation at Bikfaya.[2]

As she later recounted, “When I entered the Church I felt immense joy, inner relief and, looking at the image of the Blessed Virgin, I felt as if a voice had come from it and ... said to me: You will be a nun.”

Boutrossieh's father and stepmother tried to take her back home but she did not want to go. “I asked the mistress of novices to excuse me from seeing them and she agreed. They returned home, saddened, and since then they never saw her again.

Her kinsman, Father Joseph Gemayel and his family founded a new religious institute for women that provided them with full- time education as well as religious instruction. Boutrossieh's name, Pierina (in French), was listed last among the first four aspirants of “Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception” (“Mariamettes”, in French) in Father Gemayel’s notebook dated January 1, 1853. She was 21.

Convent years[edit]

On February 9, 1855, the Feast of St. Maron, Boutrossieh commenced her novitiate at the convent in Ghazir and chose the name Anissa (Agnes). She took her first temporary vows on 19 March 1862 at the age of thirty.[3] Sister Anissa's first assignment in the father Congregation was charge of the kitchen service in the Jesuit School in Ghazir, where she spent seven years.[2] She was placed in charge of the workers and had the task of giving them religious instruction in a spinning mill in Scerdanieh, where she remained for two months.”

In 1860 while in Ghazir, her superiors sent her on a temporary posting to Deir-el-Qamar, in Mount Lebanon - Shouf Lebanon where she helped the Jesuit mission. She recounted, “That year there were the well known battles and bloody massacres.”[citation needed] In less than two months the Druze sect, killed 7,771 people and destroyed 360 villages, 560 churches, 28 schools, and 42 convents. Sr. Anissa saved one child’s life by hiding him in the skirts of her habit as he was being chased by some soldiers.[2] Anissa was deeply affected by the massacres.[1]

Two years later, she was transferred to Gebail where she remained for one year before going to Ma'ad to establish a school there at the request of Antoun (Anthony) Issa, a prominent citizen.[4]

In 1871, the “Mariamettes” religious institute merged with another to form the Order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The nuns were given the option to join the new order, or a different one, or to resume lay status. Sr. Anissa decided to become a cloistered nun rather than a teaching sister, and joined the Baladita Order, the monastic order now named “The Lebanese Maronite Order of St. Anthony", founded in 1695 and told Antoun Issa of her decision. He offered to pay the requisite dowry.[4]

That same night, Anissa dreamed of three men. One with a white beard, one dressed like a soldier and the third was an old man. One of the men said to her, “’Become a nun in the Baladita Order.’ I woke up very happy … and went to Antoun Issa, bursting with joy … and I told him about my dream.” Antoun identified the men as St. Anthony of Qozhaia (St. Anthony Abbot) of whom the order was inspired, the soldier was St. George, to whom the church in Ma’ad was dedicated and the third could only be a Baladita monk. Sr. Anissa decided to leave immediately for the monastery of St. Simon in Al-Qarn. Antoun gave her the money as promised as well as a letter of recommendation to the archbishop.[4]

On July 12, 1871, at the age of thirty-nine, Anissa began her novitiate into the new monastery and then on August 25, 1873, she “professed her perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in the spirit of the strict Rule of the Baladita Order.” Her new name was that of her mother’s, Rafqa, (Rebecca),[1] the name of Abraham’s great granddaughter and wife of his son Isaac. Saint Simon’s Convent, was situated on a high altitude where the winters were very harsh. The nuns followed a very rigid daily schedule throughout the year. Prayer and manual labour became the rule of their daily lives. The nuns planted and harvested vegetables and grain in the surrounding fields. They also cultivated silkworms and sewed vestments for churches.[3] Rafqa remained in the monastery until 1897.

Life with pain[edit]

In 1885 Rafqa decided not to join the nuns for a walk around the monastery. In her autobiographical account she wrote, “It was the first Sunday of the Rosary. I did not accompany them. Before leaving each of the nuns came and said to me, ‘Pray for me sister.’ There were some who asked me to say seven decades of the Rosary … I went to the Church and started to pray. Seeing that I was in good health and that I had never been sick in my life, I prayed to God in this way, ‘Why, O my God, have you distance yourself from me and have abandoned me. You have never visited me with sickness! Have you perhaps abandoned me?’”[3]

Blessed Rafqa continued in her account to her superior, the next night after the prayer “At the moment of sleeping I felt a most violent pain spreading above my eyes to the point that I reached the state you see me in, blind and paralyzed, and as I myself had asked for sickness I could not allow myself to complain or murmur.”[3]

“The symbolic daughter of a country which for over a decade has been in the world headlines because of its suffering,” Blessed Rafqa suffered many years because of her desire to share in the passion of Jesus Christ.

The Mother Superior sent Sister Rafqa to Tripoli, where she submitted to a painful medical examination.[3] For two years, Blessed Rafqa suffered. She went to several doctors who all agreed that there was nothing they could do. Upon the persuasion of Father Estefan, Blessed Rafqa consulted an American doctor who strongly suggested that the eye be removed. Estefan recalls, “Before the operation I asked the doctor to anesthetize the eye so that Rafqa would not feel any pain but she refused. The doctor made her sit down and pushed a long scalpel … into her eye … the eye popped out and fell on the ground, palpitating slightly … Rafqa didn’t complain … but only said, ‘in communion with Christ’s Passion.’” The pain was then all concentrated to her left eye and nothing could be done.[1]

Gradually her left eye shrunk and sunk into the socket and Rafqa became blind. For about thirty years both sockets hemorrhaged two to three times a week. She also suffered from frequent nosebleeds. “Her head, her brow, her eyes, her nose were as if they were being pierced by a red hot needle. Rafqa did not let this pain isolate her from the community. She continued to spin wool and cotton and knitted stockings for the other sisters; she participated in choral prayer.

Due to the harsh winters at the monastery of St. Simon, Rafqa was allowed to spend the coldest months on the Lebanese coast as a guest of the Sisters of Charity and then of the residence of the Maronite Order. Unable to observe the Rule at these locales, Blessed Rafqa asked to be taken to the monastery of St. Elias at El Rass, which belonged to her order.

In 1897, Blessed Rafqa, out of obedience, was able to permanently move to the monastery St. Joseph of Gerbata in Ma’ad along with Sister Ursula, where she remained for the last 17 years of her life. It was here that her suffering increased.

In 1907, she confided to Sister Ursula that she felt a pain in her legs, “as if someone were sticking lances in them and pain in my toes as if they were being pulled off.” This began the long list of sufferings and pains Blessed Rafqa withstood for the last seven years of her life.

Based on direct evidence and on the autopsy of Rafqa’s remains in 1927, she became paralyzed due to “the progressive disarticulation of her bones. She kept intact only her brain, her tongue, her ears and her wrist and finger joints while the pain continued in her head, her devastated eye sockets and her nosebleeds … completely immobile her lower jaw touched her benumbed knee.”

Even in this state, Blessed Rafqa was able to crawl to the chapel on the feast of Corpus Christi to the amazement of all the sisters. When asked about this, Blessed Rafqa replied, “I don’t know. I asked God to help me and suddenly I felt myself slipping from the bed with my legs hanging down; I fell on the floor and crawled to the chapel.”

On a separate occasion, when asked by her superior if she would like to see, Blessed Rafqa responded, “I would like to see for at least an hour, to be able to look at you.” In an instant the superior could see Rafqa smile and suddenly said, “Look, I can see now.” Not believing her, Sister Ursula put her to the test asking her to identify several objects. Shortly thereafter, Rafqa fell into a deep sleep for about two hours. Sister Ursula became worried and tried repeatedly to awaken her. Upon waking, Rafqa explained that she had entered a large, beautifully decorated building with baths full of water and people crowding to enter them; she went with them. Sister Ursula asked her why she came back; why she didn’t continue to walk. Blessed Rafqa explained, “You called me, and I came.”

Blessed Rafqa’s obedience and love for her superior is quite evident in this account. For a nun, the superior, “as the Rule puts it, represents Christ and is owed respect, obedience and love. Despite her condition, Rafqa did nothing without the Superior’s permission.”

Before dying, Blessed Rafqa told of her life to Sister Ursula, superior of the monastery in which she died, “There is nothing important in my life that is worthy of being recorded … my mother died when I was seven years old. After her death my father married for a second time.”

Three days before her death, Rafqa said, “I am not afraid of death which I have waited for a long time. God will let me live through my death.” Then on March 23, 1914, four minutes after receiving final absolution and the plenary indulgence, she died.

Beatification and canonization[edit]

On June 9, 1984, the eve of Pentecost, in the presence of the Pope John Paul II, the decree approving the miracle of Elizabeth Ennakl, who was said to have been completely cured of uterine cancer in 1938 at the tomb of Rafka, was promulgated.

On November 16, 1985, Pope John Paul II declared St Rafqa Al Rayess a blessed and on June 10, 2001, he elevated her to the rank of saint at a solemn ceremony in the Vatican.


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