Catholic News Service, By Doreen Abi Raad, BEIRUT, Lebanon

"The Jesuit training had a great influence on him: his respect for the church, his love for the people, his open mind, his freedom of judgment and especially his discernment," said Father Nehmeh.

Cardinal Sfeir’s personality is a mix of three characters: the priest, the leader and the ancestral Lebanese man of the mountain, said Maronite Father Charles Ksas, parish priest for Amioun and Bziza villages in northern Lebanon.

"The young people love him and older people rediscover their heritage through him," he said.

Each Sunday morning, as many as 200-300 people – the poor, the wealthy, families with children – wait for a face-to-face meeting with Cardinal Sfeir. On the remaining six days of the week, he receives visitors from 9:30 a.m. until noon.

Maronite Bishop Bechara Rai of Jbeil said Cardinal Sfeir "greets you with a smile and listens to you patiently without giving the impression that he is in a hurry."

"For me, it is a sign of their confidence in the church," Cardinal Sfeir said of his steady stream of guests. "We have to be with our people, with their difficulties, with their questions."

International dignitaries – including presidents and prime ministers, U.N. officials and secretaries of state – typically meet with the patriarch during their visits to Lebanon. Muslim clerics and diplomats posted in Lebanon visit regularly, and impromptu evening visits from Lebanese government officials are not uncommon.

"Because he’s nice, because he’s friendly, because he’s accessible, people assume that he can easily be manipulated and influenced," said el Khazen. "And this is not at all the case. He has very, very solid convictions. And these convictions are the convictions that we need for Lebanon to survive."

"I know that he has been offered incentives to engage in and support the political process," said el Khazen. "Syria sent him all kinds of people to try to co-opt him — the politics of patronage, and so on – by offering to work with him, even directly. And of course, he was never willing to accept such offers."

Bishop Rai said the cardinal "makes his decisions calmly and after deep deliberation and careful analysis of the pros and the cons. He does not reveal his secret to anybody. He weighs and evaluates the things, the events and the persons involved. He proceeds by thesis, synthesis and conclusion."

"He prays constantly, especially the divine office," added Bishop Rai.

The patriarch still writes his own homilies and speeches and enjoys working on the computer. His stamina, he says, "is a gift from God."

Those who know him often remark about how little he eats.

"In a few minutes, he has his lunch. Ten minutes, top," said Msgr. Joseph Tawk, administrative secretary to Cardinal Sfeir. The secretary said the cardinal does not drink coffee or alcohol in a land where feasting and "taking a coffee" socially are an integral part of the Lebanese culture.

Of his time spent in a monastery school as a teenager, he once said: "The most important thing I learned there was developing willpower and perseverance, a life of austerity, and that a person should be content with little."

The cardinal personifies Maronite Catholics as they are described in a 1994 book by Father Michel Awit, the cardinal’s personal secretary: "The Lebanese mountain gave the Lebanese an iron will and stern stubbornness…. They were open to all ideas, hospitable, generous and assured of their strength."

Cardinal Sfeir often tells the faithful that, despite the difficulties of these times, their circumstances are much better than "the miseries and persecution that befell our people throughout the ages. Our church is a church struggling for excellence."

What is Cardinal Sfeir’s dream for Lebanon?

"To be independent, sovereign and to have the liberty to be with the other countries, free of any pressure," he said. "And our interest is to have the best relations with our neighbors, especially with Syria. But we cannot accept that Syria governs us and chooses our president, our ministers and our parliamentarians. Otherwise, we are not independent."

"We have to rely on providence" for the future, the cardinal said. "There is a providence that cannot leave us."

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Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops