The author enters the sandbagged entrance to the Pontifical Mission’s Beirut office. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Although the war destroyed most of Beirut, the shrine to Our Lady of Lebanon survived. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
The Pontifical Mission’s child sponsorship program includes Christian and Muslim children. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Sister Maureen, at right, with Sister Marie Melhem, S.S.C.C., whom the author credits with protecting her life. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
As I look back on my years with the Pontifical Mission, I think of what brought me here, of the time when I worked as a health professional in a hospital sponsored by my community, the Congregation of the Holy Cross.
I led a tidy, comfortable life. I was halfway through a doctoral program and I was directing a successful pastoral care program at the hospital. Then, in just four days, everything turned upside down.
It was 1980 and, in Cambodia, a genocide was taking place. More than a million peasants, intellectuals and artisans men, women and children were being murdered by a regime hostile to its own people. Hundreds of thousands of refugees swarmed Cambodias border with Thailand seeking safety as the world looked the other way.
In response to this tragedy, the leadership of the congregation appealed to the sisters for help; health professionals were needed to care for these refugees, all of whom lived in subhuman conditions.
I lived in a community of 10 sisters; nine answered the appeal. I chose to stay at home. However a gifted and wise regional superior suggested that I think about it. I spent that entire night in chapel thinking. By dawn I realized that what kept me from answering was my own convenience, my comfortable life. Once I faced this, I was free. Four days later, I was on a plane to Thailand.
It was the most difficult period in my life. We drove 20 miles in a pickup truck to the camps. Once there, we worked in an atmosphere that saw a death toll of more than 2,000 individuals a day. To get from point A to point B, I had to step over the dead, most of whom died of starvation and disease. Our living conditions were no better. We lived in a cinder block warehouse with no water. We worked from dawn to dusk. And although the transition from the comforts of home to the hell of the Thai camps was disturbing, the experience changed and redirected my life.
I was then sent to Lebanon for three tours as a representative of Catholic Relief Services which, together with my community, had sponsored my tour in Thailand.
Lebanon was in the midst of its own civil war, a war that witnessed the unlimited capacity of hatred, greed, corruption and the thirst for power. While emergency relief programs for displaced families and the handicapped were implemented, I fell in love with the people and country.
The hope of the young and the courage of the women religious inspired in me a passion for a people who were saddened and burdened by the destruction of their country by their own.
We Americans know the danger and extent of the power of hatred as it was unleashed in Lebanon. It was a very dangerous time. How I survived I do not know; and now that I think of it, I do not know why I took the risk. I know taking such a risk is something you only do once. However I made calculated decisions and took advice from those in the know.
I was protected. There are many incidents I could describe that illustrate this protection: lunching in a quiet restaurant that 30 minutes after I left became the scene of a bloodbath; boarding a ferry to travel from Cyprus to Beirut as I habitually did, only to change my mind and fly into Beirut instead that ferry was bombed that night. It was God who invited me to begin this journey and it was God who sustained and protected me.
In 1986 I was hired by the Pontifical Missions Beirut office to work in the project department. Shortly thereafter the directors post became vacant. I had no intention of staying, but Msgr. John Nolan, then president, requested that I remain to hold things together until a new director was appointed. I then took the liberty of writing to Msgr. Nolan, whom I had never met:
As you search for a permanent replacement for the executive director position of the Pontifical Mission, a task which is of the utmost importance for the future well functioning of this office, please permit me to make a few pertinent remarks it would seem to me that the person to be selected would best serve the organization if he possessed the following:
Astute awareness of the political, religious and military realities of the country which demand:
absolute neutrality posture of equality and fairness strict understanding of the proper realm and boundaries of PM operations low key approach and behavior ability to maintain good public relations with key persons and organizations [and] skills in French and/or Arabic.
I knew he was looking for a priest, and I neither desired nor intended to take the position.
Shortly thereafter Msgr. Nolan arrived in Lebanon with John Cardinal OConnor, president of the Pontifical Missions sister agency, Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The cardinal approached me and asked, Could you handle this? and I responded, Yes. Msgr. Nolan then formally asked me to accept the position of director.
Later at a gathering of Lebanons religious, male and female, the cardinal introduced me as his representative in Lebanon, saying, remember, my last name is OConnor, and hers, OGrady!
The greatest resource of any organization is its people. I recruited a young, energetic and intelligent staff; a group of people who were interested in doing their part to bring peace to their country. And though they could profit from formation and guidance, their dynamism and energy strengthened our efforts to work with the poor. And unlike the majority of the populace, they were freer of the prejudices that have haunted their homeland.
For four years, the biggest decision each day was whether or not to call each person to the office. Every morning we communicated with one another via walkie talkie the phone lines were almost always down. Usually we discussed the fighting in each individuals neighborhood and whether it was relatively safe to leave the security of a stairwell or a bunker. I was responsible for the safety and lives of each staff member. Yet in those four years of fighting, we only missed two working days. In a nation that saw schools, businesses and basic social services disrupted 50 percent of the time, our staffs desire to work was amazing and their accomplishments, astounding.
Now, thank God, the civil war is over. This is the recovery period. The staff is busy assessing the needs of a population dreadfully affected by the war. The reconstruction of a nation seems insurmountable, but our staff is eager.
In 1990 Msgr. Robert L. Stern, president of the Pontifical Mission, asked me to take on more regional responsibility. I was appointed special assistant to the president and chief operating officer.
In just three years and after an unbelievable amount of travel, I have seen the Pontifical Missions endeavors increase dramatically. The Beirut office has now extended its system of services into Syria; the Jerusalem office has links in Cyprus, and recently the Amman office began to extend its efforts in Iraq. In the past seven years, we have doubled our staff projects and programs have increased tenfold.
Things change rapidly in the Middle East, but the needs are always great. People and the work of the people can never become stale; one must constantly evaluate, reassess and redirect. New personnel and new insights are healthy if an organization is to survive and survive well. No one is indispensable.
With this in mind I have decided to take a sabbatical; to set aside a year for contemplation in a cloistered convent, to perfect my French and improve my Arabic, and to learn an Old World craft. I thrive on creativity. And at the end of this period, I hope I will listen to the same power that brought me safe thus far.