ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

CNEWA at 75: A New Vision Is Formed

A succession of gifted leaders bring their insight to the work of CNEWA.

When Msgr. Joseph T. Ryan took up the reins as National Secretary of CNEWA and President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine in January 1961, he found a crisis. Palestinian refugees, scattered throughout the Middle East, were placing increasingly heavy burdens on host governments, especially as it became clear that the refugees were there to stay.

Msgr. Ryan was well aware of the pressures refugees were exerting on their hosts and the resentment of the local populations, resentment that was intensified by assistance given the refugees by the United Nations and Western relief organizations. He realized that need was not confined to the refugees; it existed throughout the Middle East.

Fortified by reports from Msgr. Stephen J. Kelleher, his successor in Beirut, Msgr. Ryan recommended broadening the work of the Pontifical Mission – much of it financed by CNEWA – to include non-refugees. By 1961 the affairs of CNEWA and the Pontifical Mission in the Middle East had become inextricably intertwined.

Msgr. Ryan had a broad understanding of assistance. Yes, primary and secondary schools should be built and maintained, but college scholarships should also be given to gifted students. Hospitals and clinics should be supported, but health care tailored to special-needs patients should be provided. Workshops for the unemployed should be established, and self-support programs should be initiated.

In September 1961, Msgr. Ryan began the first of several Holy Land projects: the construction of the School for the Blind in Gaza. He wrote to each of the directors of schools for the blind in the United States and to members of the American Federation of Catholic Workers for the Blind, asking for advice and assistance. Their response, together with gifts from donors who read Msgr. Ryan’s column in the Catholic press, enabled CNEWA to build the school, which not only educated blind children and youths but also taught job-related skills.

In December 1961, under Msgr. Ryan’s direction, the Pontifical Mission made a $5,000 grant to Swiss Caritas to help build Caritas Baby Hospital in Bethlehem, then and now the only pediatric hospital in the West Bank. The following year, the agency initiated a pilot agricultural and development program for Jordan’s native Bedouin, the JASH Self-Help Program. Its name was an acronym of the participating villages: Judaiyida, Ader, Smakieh and Humid.

Besides its partnership with the Pontifical Mission in the Holy Land, CNEWA’s programs in other parts of the world were going strong. Donors continued to sponsor novices and seminarians; burses for their support were forwarded by CNEWA via the Congregation for the Eastern Church to the novitiates and seminaries in which these aspiring candidates received their religious formation.

The Congregation continued to forward “mission pages” listing the needs cited by papal legates assigned to the regions served by CNEWA. CNEWA raised funds to cover these needs and sent the monies to the Congregation for distribution. These funds built and furnished churches and chapels, supported orphanages, provided Mass stipends to priests and met the other needs enumerated by the nuncios.

Back home, CNEWA continued to finance the annual celebration of Eastern Catholic liturgies started during the O’Reilly years, but by 1963 these observances had shrunk to an annual liturgy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City; conferences at Fordham had ceased. The annual liturgy, however, was an important source of publicity for CNEWA.

Late in the fall of 1963, Pope Paul VI announced his intention to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 1964. The Pope was aware of the problems faced by the refugees there. As Pope Pius XII’s acting Secretary of State, he had helped to establish the Pontifical Mission, recommending Msgr. Thomas J. McMahon as its head, and he remained informed about its work. In October 1963, he had written to Msgr. Ryan praising the “efforts and admirable achievements” of the Mission in “providing spiritual and material relief to the victims of war in the Holy Land.”

Bishop James H. Griffiths, the unofficial observer for the Holy See at the U.N., advised Msgr. Ryan to speak to Cardinal Spellman about the Pope’s trip. Bishop Griffiths was sure the Pope would be faced with the problems of the Palestinian refugees and should be well briefed both in advance and during the trip. Taking the Bishop’s advice, Msgr. Ryan spoke to Cardinal Spellman, who immediately advised him to brief the Secretary of State, Amleto Cardinal Cicognani, in Rome.

The papal trip was scheduled for 4 to 6 January; right after Christmas Msgr. Ryan flew to Rome. After speaking with him, Cardinal Cicognani decided that the American priest should be included in the party accompanying the Pope to Jerusalem. Msgr. Ryan joined the papal entourage on 4 January 1964 in Amman, Jordan, and accompanied the Holy Father as he visited holy sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee and Bethlehem.

In December 1964, Msgr. Ryan traveled to Bombay to attend the International Eucharistic Congress, which the Pope also attended. When the Congress ended, Msgr. Ryan toured the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, the birthplace of Christianity in that country, visiting leaders of the Syro-Malabar Catholic and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches and inspecting the many churches and chapels, schools and convents that CNEWA had built there.

In the fall of 1964, Msgr. Ryan had commissioned management consultants James Kane and Charles McNeill to conduct a study of CNEWA’s New York operations.

Upon completion of this study, Messrs. Kane and McNeill recommended upgrading the agency’s advertising and direct mail programs, improving personnel benefits and refining hiring and staff promotion procedures. They also advised adding another priest to the New York staff as Assistant Secretary, seeking competitive bids from vendors, hiring a statistical clerk to monitor advertising and direct mail returns and preparing a well-constructed annual operating budget.

Msgr. Ryan began to implement these suggestions, but his tenure at CNEWA was cut short in December 1965 when Pope Paul appointed him the Archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska. Msgr. Ryan was consecrated by Cardinal Spellman on 25 March 1966 in the cathedral in Albany. That same day, a special meeting of the CNEWA Board of Directors convened at Albany’s Ten Eyck Hotel. Archbishop Ryan tendered his resignation as National Secretary and Secretary of the Corporation.

According to the meeting’s minutes, Cardinal Spellman nominated Msgr. John G. Nolan, Msgr. Ryan’s Assistant Secretary, as National Secretary; his nomination was seconded by Bishop Edward E. Swanstrom and the motion was unanimously carried. Cardinal Spellman then noted the growth of the Association during Archbishop Ryan’s tenure and, in the name of the Association, offered heartfelt thanks.

Msgr. John G. Nolan would be associated with the agency for 30 years. In recognition of his work, he would become the first Catholic to receive the Gold Cross of the Council of Rhodes, presented to him by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1967. Although a Latin priest, he would be granted faculties to celebrate the Byzantine and Maronite liturgies.

A priest of the Diocese of Albany and a long-time friend of Msgr. Ryan, Msgr. Nolan had been “borrowed” by Cardinal Spellman to assist Ryan in June 1962.

Five years later, a 42-year-old priest of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, Father Edward C. Foster, joined the New York staff as Assistant National Secretary of CNEWA and Special Assistant to the President of the Pontifical Mission. Cardinal Spellman announced Foster’s appointment on 13 February 1967. In 1968 he was named a monsignor by Pope Paul.

Msgrs. Foster and Nolan were to form a team that would shape CNEWA for almost 20 years. Msgr. Nolan, with his charismatic personality, was the “front man”; he concentrated on meeting the public and the press, reporting to the hierarchy, delivering the speeches. Msgr. Foster assisted him in taking care of what Msgr. Foster once termed the “mechanics” – he ordered the supplies, paid the bills, supervised the staffs of the various offices at home and abroad and handled the advertising and direct mail programs of the agency. In 1973, Msgr. Foster was named Associate National Secretary of CNEWA and Vice President of the Pontifical Mission. He ended his service to these papal agencies in August 1986.

The two men had strong personalities, but in spite of their differences they forged an agency that dominated the Catholic mission field. Among their accomplishments were the opening of two overseas offices, one in Amman, the other in Rome; the publication of Catholic Near East Magazine, as it was then called; and the establishment of two unique educational facilities in the Holy Land: Paul VI Ephpheta Institute for hearing-impaired children in Bethlehem (established at the request of the Pope for whom it was named) and Bethlehem University. They introduced computers to CNEWA and took other steps toward the modernization of the agency.

During Msgr. Nolan’s tenure, CNEWA’s annual income soared from $4 million to over $18 million. This surge could not be attributed to inflation alone; it reflected the advertising skills of its executive staff. Msgr. Nolan’s weekly columns, appearing in the country’s diocesan newspapers, attracted donors across the land. His urgent request to his readers to remember CNEWA in their wills resulted in bequests that are still helping to fund the agency’s work today.

Msgr. Nolan is credited with a number of achievements during his years at the helm, but the program most closely identified with him is CNEWA’s Needy Child Sponsorship Program.

Early in 1966, Msgr. Nolan conceived the idea of a fund for orphans similar to that of the Foster Parents Plan. CNEWA would ask sponsors to contribute $10 each month toward the support of a specific child. The sponsor would receive four letters a year about that child from the institution caring for him or her.

Msgr. Nolan broached his idea to the Congregation for the Eastern Church through Father John McCarthy, the official in charge of CNEWA affairs. A priest of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, Father McCarthy had assumed this responsibility on 1 January 1965; he remained in the congregation for 30 years. CNEWA’s National Secretary persuaded Father McCarthy to embark on a fact-finding trip to determine the number of children who would qualify for a sponsorship. Father McCarthy began his journey on 10 October 1966, visiting 12 countries in 70 days. Exhausted, he returned on 6 January 1967, convinced of the need for such a program. The Needy Child Sponsorship Program was in operation by the end of the month.

From that day forward, Msgr. Nolan was a tireless advocate on behalf of these children in need. In elevators, at dinners, at meetings, he would beg friend and stranger alike to sponsor his “kids.” Also dear to his heart was the Pontifical Mission Orphanage in Bethlehem, opened in 1949 to care for girls orphaned by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Run by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles, the orphanage housed Palestinian girls between the ages of four and eighteen. Every Christmas (and as often as he could manage in between) Msgr. Nolan would visit the orphanage and, like Santa Claus, distribute gifts to the girls.

In 1970 Msgr. Nolan selected three of these girls to appear in a CNEWA promotional film about the Association’s work in the Holy Land. Produced at no cost to CNEWA, the film, titled “The Untold Story,” aired during Christmas week, 1971, to a viewing audience of more than five million adults – almost 90 percent of the TV viewing audience.

In 1967, Msgr. Nolan initiated, and thereafter often led, tours to the Middle East for priests, who thus acquired first-hand knowledge of the needs of that troubled region. Similar tours for journalists were also started.

The powder keg that was the Middle East had exploded in 1967. By the time the U.N.-brokered cease-fire – halting hostilities between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria – took effect on 11 June, Israel had occupied the Old City of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.

A new wave of Palestinian refugees flooded an already overburdened Arab world. CNEWA, through the Pontifical Mission, responded with emergency relief efforts that distributed food, clothing, medicine and shelter to the newly dispossessed. In Jordan, the sister organizations built prefabricated schools; in Syria they built houses; in Jerusalem they repaired homes damaged during the war and operated a food program.

Other CNEWA-funded programs included care for the aged by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Jordan and Gaza and mother-and-child clinics operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood in Jordan.

The year 1967 also brought changes to CNEWA. Cardinal Spellman died on 2 December; three months later, Bishop Terence Cooke became Archbishop of New York and CNEWA’s President.

On 9 September 1967, Msgr. Nolan addressed the Eastern Lieutenancy of the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. One of CNEWA’s mandates was to educate the public about the church in the Holy Land, a region in which the Knights and Ladies had served. In his address, Msgr. Nolan outlined the history of CNEWA and presented an update of CNEWA’s work in the Holy Land.

It was Msgr. Nolan’s first address to the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre; archival records suggest it was the first address given by a National Secretary to members of this papal order. In any event, a tradition was started. Today, the Secretary General and other members of CNEWA’s staff make numerous trips each year to meetings of lieutenancies across the U.S. and even abroad to educate Knights and Ladies about the tangled affairs of the Middle East.

India was and still is a major recipient of CNEWA’s aid. When famine broke out there in 1966, Pope Paul VI appealed for help. CNEWA responded immediately, gathering funds for famine relief and sending them directly to the Holy Father for distribution. Eighteen years later, Ethiopia suffered a devastating famine and CNEWA again responded.

In 1985, at the height of the Ethiopian famine, Msgr. Nolan accompanied Cardinal O’Connor (who had succeeded Cardinal Cooke as Archbishop of New York and President of CNEWA the previous year) to Ethiopia to call world attention to the plight of the Ethiopian people.

In April 1976, USAID provided a CNEWA grant through CRS to fund 11 projects in and around Jerusalem. This grant, administered by Projects Supervisor Donald J. Magnetti, was disbursed through the Pontifical Mission.

According to Msgr. Foster, Cardinal Cooke had been reluctant to approve CNEWA’s involvement. A firm believer in separation of church and state, the Cardinal did not want to give the U.S. government any opportunity to influence CNEWA policy. When the grant came up for renewal, the Cardinal insisted that CNEWA withdraw.

It would appear that the U.S. government was not averse to involving itself in CNEWA’s affairs. In October 1979, Msgr. Nolan wrote to Paul Cardinal Philippe, O.P., Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches from 1973 to 1980, to inform him that U.S. authorities were asking questions about monies distributed by agencies like CNEWA. In his letter, Msgr. Nolan asked the Cardinal to state in his reports how the money provided by CNEWA was actually used.

Meanwhile, violence had surfaced once again in the Middle East. Jordan and Lebanon were engrossed in internal conflict. Civil war in Jordan was brief, but in Lebanon it would endure for 15 years. Israel, Syria and Egypt fought the “Yom Kippur” war, so called because it began on the Jewish holy day in 1973. Cold War involvement by both the United States (whose support of Israel was widely resented by Arabs) and the U.S.S.R. only fanned the flames. Anti-Western feelings, particularly against Americans, ran high in the Middle East.

In Iran, the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overtook the U.S. embassy in Teheran in November 1979, holding its staff and their families hostage for over a year. Pope John Paul II immediately initiated peace overtures. Considered an expert on Middle East affairs and regularly consulted by the Holy See, Msgr. Nolan became directly involved in the affair. During the winter of 1979-80, he visited 14 hostages in Teheran.

In 1985, Cardinal O’Connor named a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, Father Robert L. Stern, as Associate Secretary.

Msgr. Nolan’s tenure as head of CNEWA was soon to end. In December 1987, Pope John Paul II named him an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A. He was ordained in Rome on 6 January 1988. Even in his new post, Bishop Nolan continued to serve CNEWA as a member of its Board. He died on 19 November 1997.

With Msgr. Nolan’s departure, Msgr. Stern became acting Secretary General and acting President of the Pontifical Mission. His appointment as Secretary General of CNEWA was confirmed by the Board of Trustees on 15 November 1988. Fourteen months later, on 18 February 1989, the Pope formally appointed him President of the Pontifical Mission. Msgr. Stern would continue – indeed, expand – the modernization begun by Msgr. Nolan and lead these two papal agencies into the 21st century.

Writer and editor Peg Maron is Production Editor of CNEWA WORLD.

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