Msgr. Robert Stern and John Cardinal O’Connor visit a site in Beirut damaged by shelling, 1989. (photo: Thomas McHugh)
Msgr. Denis J. Madden reviews blueprints for a new pastoral center with Abuna Luca Milesi, O.F.M., Cap., Bishop of Barentu, Eritrea, 1998. (photo: CNEWA, Asmara)
Sister Arousiag Sajonian conducts a class al fresco at the annual summer camp of Our Lady of Armenia in Tzakhkatzor. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
George and Marie Doty, seated with Msgr. Stern at the inaugural service, gaze at the renovated dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, 2 January 1997. (photo: Joel Fishman)
Assistance to the church in India varies as never before. Father Jose Kizhakkedath conducts morning prayers with residents at the Malankara Boys’ Home in Kerala, which has received considerable support from CNEWA. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Iraqi refugees in Jordan receive healthcare and other benefits from CNEWA-funded programs. (photo: Maria Bastone)
Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., CNEWA’s Regional Director for Ethiopia and Eritrea, stands atop an abandoned tank near Barentu, Eritrea, Summer 2000. (photo: Sister Christian Molidor, R.S.M.)
Msgr. Stern addresses guests at the U.N. for the golden jubilee celebration for the Pontifical Mission, October 1999. (photo: Maria Bastone)
Village residents in Lebanon benefit from a CNEWA village restoration program funded in part by USAID. (photo: CNEWA-PMP, Beirut)
As the 20th century closed, two men, John Cardinal OConnor, Archbishop of New York, and Msgr. Robert L. Stern, brought a new vision to CNEWA. Throughout his years as President, Cardinal OConnor remained close to this papal agency, putting his stamp on its growth and direction, but responsibility for shaping its future fell largely to Msgr. Stern. He was challenged from the outset.
In November 1987, CNEWAs Board of Directors, spurred on by Cardinal OConnor, voted to distribute a large portion of CNEWAs reserve funds. Within a matter of weeks, however, Msgr. John Nolan, Secretary General, was named Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, U.S.A. Msgr. Stern, as acting Secretary General, had to assume responsibility for implementing the Boards decision. Ignoring the disorder that inevitably follows so abrupt a change, the Cardinal told the Monsignor to distribute the funds before the end of the year.
We had less than three weeks to allocate more than $18 million, Msgr. Stern recalled later. How can we responsibly distribute such a tremendous sum of money in such a short period of time? I thought. Where should we start? Despite the time crunch, he carried out the Cardinal order; the funds were distributed on time.
Bethlehem University received three million dollars to establish a permanent endowment and an additional million for renovations and the purchase of equipment. Two million dollars were allocated to Ethiopia for immediate relief assistance and an additional million supported pastoral projects in that country.
In India, $3.5 million was allocated to support pastoral, educational and development projects and the establishment of a permanent endowment for the Institute for Social Service. In Lebanon, CNEWAs $3.5 million grant supported relief and development projects and provided emergency relief to Catholic schools.
In the United States, CNEWA made ten-year commitments of $25,000 a year for Fordham University Middle Eastern studies program and of $100,000 a year for the Middle East Educational Fellowship program at Brandeis University. Subsequently transferred to Harvard, this program brought six to eight professionals each year from different, often hostile, areas of the Middle East to the U.S. to obtain advance professional degrees.
Fellows lived and studied together, forming personal and professional relationships. They returned to their respective countries filling public service posts and collaborating with their peers in other Middle Eastern countries. By January 1997, graduates of the program had developed regional workshops that reached healthcare programs in the Middle East and North Africa.
Other grants went to CNEWAs Amman and Jerusalem offices, the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and offices of the Holy See engaged in the promotion of Christian unity and interreligious dialogue.
As acting Secretary General, Msgr. Stern faced another pressing assignment. At their annual meeting on 14 November 1984, CNEWAs Board of Trustees had voted to commission an independent study of the Associations organization by the management consulting firm, Peat, Marwick & Mitchell. The consultants recommended reorganization into four major areas: administration, development, overseas and programs.
In line with these recommendations, Msgr. Nolan had taken the first steps toward recruiting talented professionals; implementing improved accounting, budgeting and finance procedures; expanding public relations and marketing programs; and introducing agency-wide computerization. But it fell to Msgr. Stern to implement fully these initiatives. He steered CNEWA through at least two major staff reorganizations and pioneered the agency computerization both here and abroad.
Cardinal OConnor, however, had just begun. Devoted to the cause of the Lebanese, he made three trips to Lebanon in 1986 and 1989 during the Lebanese civil war and again in 1992 as part of a larger visit to the Holy Land. He then led a delegation of Lebanese-Americans to the White House on 16 September 1992 to ask President George Bush to lift restrictions on American travel to Lebanon and increase U.S. aid to that country.
Msgr. Stern also spoke up on behalf of Lebanon. On 9 April 1991 he appeared before the U.S. Congressional International Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East to ask for more than $5 million in aid for the reconstruction of that beleaguered nation a crumb for Lebanon, he pointed out, when compared to the $3 billion annually allocated to Israel.
Two years later the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supplemented an existing CNEWA program for postwar relief and village resettlement with a three-year $1.5 million matching grant. This support was expanded in 1997 when USAID awarded CNEWA $5.77 million over a five-year period for rural construction and small-scale economic activities in 47 Lebanese villages.
In 1989 Msgr. Stern assisted an ad hoc committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops charged with developing a new statement on the Middle East. After accompanying the chairman, Cardinal OConnor, to Lebanon in 1989, in July he escorted the other two members Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Vice President of CNEWA, and Archbishop Roger M. Mahoney of Los Angeles on a fact-finding trip to Egypt, Israel, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan and Syria. They met with bishops, cabinet ministers, patriarchs, presidents, refugees and settlers. They listened to the diverse views of Christians, Jews and Muslims.
When they returned, Msgr. Stern helped the committee draft and edit Toward Peace in the Middle East: Perspectives, Principles and Hopes, the historic statement of the U.S. bishops issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on 9 November 1989.
In 1990 CNEWA responded to a new crisis. As the threat of war loomed and Iraqi refugees flooded Jordan, CNEWA channeled emergency funds through its Amman office for food, disposable eating utensils, medicines and tents.
In 1991, CNEWA utilized the resources of the Pontifical Mission, its operating agency in the Middle East, and other humanitarian agencies, to establish a relief line to Iraq. Convoys of trucks carried food and medicine to north central Iraq for distribution by local religious. The Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood and the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine provided on-the-ground support. Three convoys reached Iraq before Iraqi government restrictions led to the termination of the project.
Two years later, Msgr. Stern traveled to Iraq as part of a delegation of the Holy See headed by Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Their purpose was pastoral: To meet with Christian hierarchs and assure them of the Holy Sees support for their communities. The delegation found a country devastated by shortages of food and medicine and rocked by inflation. The most serious threat, the delegation sadly concluded, was the United Nations embargo, which struck Iraqs weakest citizens while its political leaders remained unaffected.
Although limited by Iraqi government regulations, CNEWAs direct aid to Iraq continued. CNEWA also funded an unusual project initiated by Bishop Selim Sayegh, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan, to enable Iraqi refugees in Jordan to earn a living, making rosaries in their homes for sale abroad.
Meanwhile, new initiatives for support of the church in Egypt were developed. CNEWA continued its support of St. Leo the Great Catholic Coptic Seminary in Cairo, enrolling 109 seminarians in the agency Seminarian Sponsorship Program. Some grants in Egypt promoted Christian unity.
In 1990, for example, CNEWA helped restore the library at Cairo Theological Seminary in the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Alexandria and donated $50,000 to a program to fight drug abuse.
Other grants boosted interreligious dialogue. In 1997, CNEWA committed funds to build a library for the growing collection of reference books owned by the Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies, established in 1945 to enhance dialogue between Christians and Muslims. In the early 90s, the Latin Vicariate of Alexandria established programs for Sudanese refugees; when the Latin Vicar turned to CNEWA, Msgr. Stern quickly responded.
In October 1992, Pope John Paul II sent $50,000 each to Sunni Muslim, Coptic Orthodox and Coptic Catholic leaders in Egypt to aid the thousands who were injured or dispossessed by a major earthquake. The gifts were contributed by CNEWA and forwarded to the Pope by Cardinal OConnor.
In 1993 CNEWA formally opened its office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and named Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., as Director. Brother Vincent had been assisting CNEWA in the review of projects in Ethiopia since 1986. Now he took over responsibility for what had been a separate Needy Child Sponsorship Program, involving 93 child-caring institutions and 4,090 children. He also served as coordinator of formation programs for religious congregations in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia was still in a state of civil war, a war that ended in May 1991 with the collapse of the Mengistu regime. Eritrea emerged from the conflict an independent nation, but both countries faced problems spawned by the war, including the rehabilitation of unemployed former soldiers and the care of thousands of orphaned children. CNEWA responded quickly to these and other demands.
In 1998 renewed fighting broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Since communication between the two countries was impossible, CNEWA opened an office in the Eritrean capital of Asmara. When hostilities ended, both countries faced food shortages engendered by the war and by pockets of drought. Brother Vincent notified Msgr. Stern, who responded with an emergency appeal. CNEWA donors answered with gifts totaling more than $425,000, which were distributed through the churchs existing network of priests and religious to thousands of children and adults.
Widespread poverty also continued to challenge CNEWA in India. In 1991, Msgr. Stern, accompanied by CNEWAs program staff, visited all 15 Eastern Catholic eparchies in the southwestern state of Kerala and a new eparchy in Bombay. It was the first visit of a CNEWA officer to India in 23 years. The team visited seminaries, novitiates, orphanages, health facilities, catechetical institutes and other institutions and met with local bishops who described CNEWA as a mainstay of the church in India.
On his return, Msgr. Stern pledged to continue funding the numerous churches, rectories, convents, schools and catechetical centers requested by the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches through the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, but he also expanded CNEWAs commitment to orphanages, clinics and other humanitarian projects.
To foster ecumenical dialogue, CNEWA made a generous five-year grant in 1991 to the St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, which fosters the mutual understanding of the seven Syriac churches in India Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant through collaborative study of their common heritage.
In 1994, Msgr. Stern was present at the first session of the March Synod of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and addressed the assembled bishops. He described the role of CNEWA in India and appealed to the Syro-Malabar bishops to resolve, in the interest of the unity of the church, their differences regarding liturgical reform.
Both Cardinal OConnor and Msgr. Stern were deeply committed to dialogue and under their leadership this component of CNEWAs mandate received renewed attention. The Cardinal appointed a CNEWA staff member to Archdiocesan Jewish-Catholic and Muslim-Catholic dialogue teams.
In 1990, the Cardinal authorized a $500,000 grant to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to help promote interfaith dialogue, especially with Muslims.
Msgr. Stern gave new direction to CNEWAs interfaith efforts. CNEWAs Secretary Generals stated policy is that we should always act as if the church is one unless we are forced to encounter a difference. He expresses this policy repeatedly. Apparently this sentiment is shared: During a 1994 visit to Syria, the Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Kaftaro, welcomed Msgr. Stern to the Abu Nur Mosque in Damascus during the regular Friday service, preached on the necessity for solidarity among all believers in the one God, and invited Msgr. Stern to address the congregation.
Cardinal OConnor and Cardinal Keeler both influenced the course of interreligious dialogue, particularly with the Jewish community. In March 1998, Cardinal Keeler led five bishops and eight rabbis on an interfaith journey jointly sponsored by Catholic and Jewish agencies. The group visited Christian and Jewish shrines in the Holy Land, met with civic and religious leaders, then traveled to Rome where they met with Pope John Paul II and representatives of the Holy See. Msgr. Stern and Msgr. Denis J. Madden, Associate Secretary General, helped organize the trip and guided the group through areas of Christian significance.
An ecumenical endeavor in which CNEWA played a pivotal role was the completion of the restoration of the great dome of the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
On a visit to the Holy Land, CNEWA benefactors George and Marie Doty questioned why a ceiling of temporary scaffolding covered the place of Christs resurrection. They offered to pay for the removal of the scaffolding and the completion of the works of the dome. Msgr. Stern communicated this generous offer to the three church leaders responsible for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land, and the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem. The three accepted the offer and, surprisingly, requested the submission of a design for the interior decoration of the dome a point of contention that had delayed the domes completion for decades.
An artist was engaged, a design was prepared and on 17 August 1995 the three custodians met and approved it. Their action marked the first time the leaders of these churches had agreed to a major joint activity since 1852. At the request of the three church leaders, Msgr. Stern arranged for the restoration. The restored dome was unveiled on 2 January 1997.
An important CNEWA mandate is educating people about the lands it serves. CNEWA senior staff members often address parish groups, college students and even bishops, Eastern and Latin, informing them of the Holy Sees concerns, particularly in the Middle East.
Most frequently, however, CNEWA representatives are speaking to the Knights and Ladies of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, who have a special mandate to support the church in the Holy Land. CNEWA staff members have addressed lieutenancies of the order in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
In October 1998, Msgr. Stern participated in a quadrennial consulta of the order in Rome. One of the issues raised there was justice and peace. The American lieutenants, with assistance from Msgr. Stern, developed plans for a Justice and Peace Commission of the order in the U.S.
Catholic Near East magazine, now CNEWA WORLD, continues to be an important educational tool. Its reports of political, social and religious issues pertaining to the regions served by CNEWA, together with its outstanding coverage of ecumenical issues and events, have consistently earned it awards from the Catholic Press Association. The magazine increased the frequency of its publication from quarterly to bimonthly in January 1993.
Important staff changes occurred over the years.
Father James M. Moynihan, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester with 33 years of pastoral and administrative experience, joined the staff as Associate Secretary General in March 1991. In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Syracuse, New York.
In 1996, Father Denis J. Madden, who had been serving as Director of the Jerusalem office, became Associate Secretary General; he holds that post today. Also in 1996, Maronite Chorbishop John D. Faris joined the staff as Assistant Secretary General and serves as head of CNEWAs New York office.
In 1994, CNEWAs Vatican office, located within the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, was merged with the Pontifical Mission office in Rome. Msgr. John F. McCarthy, who had headed the CNEWA office at the congregation for 30 years, became director of the joint CNEWA-Pontifical Mission office and served in that post through December 1999. By that time, the Addis Ababa, Amman, Beirut and Jerusalem offices had assumed complete responsibility for CNEWAs sponsorship programs, heretofore administered in conjunction with the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.
The first strategic planning meeting with overseas directors held at CNEWAs New York headquarters was in September 1993. The opportunity for overseas directors to discuss the projects and programs of the upcoming year with Msgr. Stern and other New York senior staff and to talk over regional problems with fellow directors proved invaluable. Strategic planning meetings have been held each year since.
Succeeding Cardinal OConnor as Archbishop of New York, Edward Cardinal Egan is now President of CNEWA. He takes an active interest in the affairs of the Association.
Today, 75 years after its establishment, CNEWA continues to fulfill its papal mandate, offering pastoral and humanitarian support to the peoples and churches of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe. Their needs are great, but CNEWA is equal to the task.
Writer and editor Peg Maron is Production Editor of CNEWA WORLD.