Pope Benedict XVI has formally accepted the resignation of Maronite Catholic Patriarch Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir, who is retiring at the age of 91.

Cardinal Sfeir has led the Maronite Church since 1986. A new Patriarch of Antioch will be elected at a meeting of the Maronite Synod of Bishops, expected to be held at Bkirke, the headquarters of the patriarchate, in March.

The Maronite Church exerts enormous public influence in Lebanon, where it is by far the largest Christian body. In his letter accepting the Patriarch’s resignation, Pope Benedict alluded to Cardinal Sfeir’s leadership during years of turmoil in Lebanon:

You began your noble ministry of patriarch of the Maronites amidst the torment of the war which bloodied the face of Lebanon for so many years. With the ardent desire for peace in your country, you led the Church and travelled the world to console those obliged to emigrate. Finally, peace returned, ever fragile but still extant.

The outgoing Patriarch will convene the Maronite Synod to elect his successor—according to reports in Lebanon, in the middle of March. He denied that he had his own favored candidates, stressing that the younger Maronite bishops would make the decision.

The Lebanese prelate submitted his resignation to the Pontiff sometime late last year. According to Vatican insiders, a formal response was delayed by concerns about the status of three other Maronite bishops who are overdue for retirement. Those bishops reportedly will not participate in the coming Synod vote.

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