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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Pilgrimage to a Land of Broken Hearts

Author Michael J.L. La Civita joined CNEWA President Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari on a pastoral visit to the Holy Land, led by CNEWA Chair Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan in April. The trip uncovered one common element running across all peoples in the region: The hearts of all are broken.

He went to commemorate. The pastoral role of the archbishop of New York — shepherding more than 2.5 million Catholics in 10 counties of New York — also includes leading local, national and international initiatives of the church. One such initiative is Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), which each archbishop of New York has chaired ex officio after the Holy See reorganized its governance in 1931.

Since Pope Benedict XVI appointed Timothy M. Dolan as archbishop of New York in 2009, he has led CNEWA delegations on pastoral visits to Lebanon (twice), Jordan, India, Iraq, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. From 12-17 April, the cardinal traveled to Israel and Palestine to mark the 75th anniversary of Pontifical Mission for Palestine, CNEWA’s operating agency in the Middle East.

The anniversary commemorates the Holy See’s care for the vulnerable and the marginalized living in the lands we call holy. Moved by the dispossession of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War — known as the Nakba, or catastrophe, in Arabic — Pope Pius XII established Pontifical Mission as an ad hoc committee to coordinate worldwide Catholic aid to assist them, placing its administration under CNEWA.

“We look at you as partners,” the cardinal said to the priests, religious and lay representatives of the many organizations that have partnered with CNEWA’s Pontifical Mission teams in Jerusalem, Amman and Beirut at a Mass of thanksgiving on 13 April at the chapel of the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, just outside the walls of the Old City.

“We look to you as members of our family. It’s always been part of the charism of Pontifical Mission and Catholic Near East Welfare Association that we look upon our efforts, not doing something for you, not doing something to you, but doing something with you. With you, together. Together we are.”

Since the dispersal of Palestinian refugees, the Middle East has suffered decades of civil and military strife, political convulsions and socioeconomic collapse, impacting generations of Israelis and Palestinians, Iraqis and Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians. Subsequently, the successors of Pope Pius XII extended the reach and scope of Pontifical Mission to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable throughout the region, regardless of ethnicity, national origin or religious identity.

He went to listen. As a pastor, the archbishop of New York tends to the souls of all, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Therefore, Cardinal Dolan was eager to meet with survivors of the 7 October terror attacks by Hamas on Israel, and with the families of those who have been taken hostage. He met them, listened to their hearts and their minds, shared their grief and offered his consolation and that of all New Yorkers, whose hearts still ache after the attacks of 9/11.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Rabbi Noam Marans, far left, meet with families of Israeli hostages at Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, 16 April. (photo: Michael J.L. La Civita)

He remarked how those targeted by Hamas were the very people who had opened their doors to dialogue, sponsoring events for Israelis and Palestinians to get to know one another better, men and women who sought to put confrontation behind and to do more than just coexist, but to dismantle the notion of the “other.”

He thanked them for their generosity of spirit, he thanked them for opening that door, and while acknowledging their broken hearts and crushed spirits, their anger and their fear for the fates of their loved ones, he asked them never to lose hope, to keep open their hearts in the hope of a just and lasting peace.

He went to inspire. “As we contemplate with gratitude 75 years of Pontifical Mission,” he said in his homily at Notre Dame, “I’m thinking of mothers.

“Mothers. Whenever there’s joy and whenever there’s sorrow in our lives, there’s the presence of mothers.

“And with all the trauma, and all the difficulty, and all the challenges that God’s people here in the Holy Land have gone through, even up to now, mothers, with their babies and children, are always on the front line of needing love and support.

“I’m thinking of our Blessed Mother, Mary, for whom this was home as well. I’m thinking of our holy mother, the church.”

The cardinal was thinking, too, of his own mother, who died a few years ago.

“After she died,” he said, “it dawned on me that in a way I have no home. … For an unmarried priest, you always consider home where your mother lives.

“And it dawned on me though, as a Catholic, as a believer, we always have a mother. We always have a mother in the Blessed Mother of Jesus. We always have a mother in holy mother church. … We always have a mother church here in Jerusalem, in the Holy Land. So, for me to come and be with you is in many ways coming home.

“So, we’re at home here. We’re family. We are one, and that gives us great encouragement in our work, great hope in our work. And the harder things get, the more we hope, and the more we work.

“You do that well,” he concluded, “and you’re an inspiration to us.”

The next day — after Israel’s Iron Dome neutralized most of the drones and missiles fired by Iran in retaliation for Israel’s attack on an Iranian diplomatic structure in Damascus — Cardinal Dolan traveled to the Palestinian Christian town of Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. He celebrated Sunday Mass at the Church of the Annunciation, a 19th-century structure packed with families eager to hear from the American prelate.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, 14 April. (photo: George Jaraiseh)

“These are days of distress and difficulty for you. … You have every reason to be afraid. To be sad. But when we walked into this church this morning, I did not see fear,” he said, his voice picking up with urgency, feeling and volume.

“I did not see sadness. I heard you sing, Alleluia! Alleluia! I saw you smile. I saw your eyes welcoming us and that, my friends, gives us hope.

“And for that, I say, thank you.”

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s director of communications.

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