I arrived at the Beirut Airport yesterday afternoon, where I was warmly welcomed by Issam Bishara, our regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. It was good to see Issam, and good to be back with my Lebanese family.
Along the route from the airport — which included passing through some obviously Hezbollah-friendly neighborhoods — there were many vivid reminders of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit, which is both pastoral and state, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Many papal flags adorn buildings and hang from poles, while huge banners featuring the pope’s portrait are seen everywhere. Front-page stories feature him, accompanied by glossy photos of the pope and major religious and political leaders. The press seems excited to welcome this messenger of peace.
And even at my hotel, located some 50 meters from our CNEWA offices in Beirut, I am welcomed and immediately asked as they see my Roman collar: “Are you here to be with Pope Benedict?” At breakfast, several waiters struck up a conversation, eager to hear more about this man of peace; they could not contain their excitement about his visit!
Issam had arranged a morning visit to a health dispensary in Rouweissat Ideidet, run by the Good Shepherd Sisters. This very humble health care clinic is located in a very poor neighborhood, which is a microcosm of Lebanon — it has every religious and political group living in proximity, but not together.
Sister Hanan Youssef, who directs the dispensary, showed us a simple sign above the entrance of this facility that states: “Religion is for God; this facility is for everyone.” And that is the warm and loving tone set by these sisters, who care for the more than 100 refugees a day. About half of them are Iraqis. The others are mostly Syrians who have fled the violence there. Some of the Iraqis have been routed and victimized twice: once from their original homeland of Iraq after the persecution of Christians began following the 2003 war in Iraq, and now since the beginning of the uprising in Syria, where many took refuge. They come as exhausted strangers and refugees.
I was very touched by the gentle manner of the two sisters there and a cadre of doctors, 16 in total, who work mostly pro bono. Their priority is to determine those in greatest need and assist those with chronic mental or physical needs. There are also social workers, who specialize in mental health concerns. They help sort out the types of psychological trauma that typically affects many displaced people. There is also special care given to pregnant women and newborns and young children, as they are so vulnerable.
There is also a new wave of refugees coming from Syria. Technically, they are in Lebanon illegally. They have no rights and are even afraid to register. They pay outrageously high rents to live in extremely poor conditions and are not on anyone’s radar. So the church offers them a warm welcome and the compassion of Jesus. CNEWA’s national office in Canada has recently offered some financial assistance to this clinic, for which the poor are so humbly thankful.
In the early afternoon, Issam and I had a delightful visit and did an interview with some of the Catholic press corps based in Rome. One of the writers is doing some pieces for Our Sunday Visitor and they were both very interested in learning from Issam some of the background leading up to the pope’s pastoral visit. They were delighted with his knowledge and insight and were very interested in hearing all about how CNEWA partners with the churches in Lebanon and Syria.
We explained to them how our “extended family” offers us the most reliable conduit for assistance — that is, through the local eparchies (dioceses) and then through local parishes. Issam shared with them how parish priests in Syria, for example, are in the best position to know who are those most in need and how to reach out to help them.
I have just returned from a family visit with the head of the Maronite Catholic Church, Patriarch Bechara. He had invited us to join him and a few archbishops for a delightful dinner. But what a surprise greeted us as we arrived at the patriarchate: hundreds of young people working into the night on construction, sound systems, lighting and rehearsals for the big youth event with the Holy Father on Saturday.
Before visiting with some of these wonderful young people, we enjoyed a meal with His Beatitude. He was in rare form. I told him I was surprised by the scale of the setting for this youth event in his front yard. He said it was like New York, and then let out a hearty laugh.
After dinner, we went outside to get the flavor of excitement from the hundreds of young people working hard in preparation for the pope’s visit. I took some photos, and they were honored and were so happy to greet me, especially when they heard I was from New York. Always, the patriarch proudly introduced me as the president of CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission. He holds all of you — members of this family — in highest esteem and is so grateful for your solidarity and generosity.
Before saying goodnight, I gave him a big hug and thanked him for such a warm welcome. I assured him, too, of the prayers of our entire CNEWA family that all will go well over the next three days. As president of the episcopal conference in Lebanon and head of the largest Catholic Eastern church in the Middle East, he is the chair of the organizing committee. It is through the kindness of his invitation that I am here, representing all of you.
I will close for now on the eve of this historic visit by Pope Benedict XVI. Please keep him in your prayers and pray for all in the Middle East. May our Holy Father inspire us to be effective peacemakers and may the Holy Spirit guide us always.
God bless all of you for your generosity to those in need in this part of the world.