In this midst of this horrific pandemic, we often refer to our modern-day heroes — from health care workers to unsung volunteers. We have been blessed by their selfless acts of service, surrounded by kindness, compassion and dedication. As a global community, as citizens, and especially here in New York City, we continue to live through the most difficult and challenging reality we have ever faced, the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the land of plenty, many of us could never imagine being asked to endure the world we’re facing: quarantine, food shortages, food pantry lines more than a mile long, a record number of our local population now unemployed with little chance of returning to work, business after business closing up for good. The future is uncertain. We are shaken to our core, to our soul.
Where do we turn and who will help us to the “other side?” Jesus himself gave us the answer when he told us that he is “the way, the truth and the life.”
And so many of those I’ve met have embraced that answer. It has been such a privilege to be in the field with the faithful we serve: those who are poor, suffering, oppressed, hungry. I highlight the word “faithful,” as a good number of those we serve on behalf of our Holy Father and the universal church are men and women of faith. They are as heroic, in their own way, as the modern-day heroes who have given so much to us in this time of turmoil and suffering.
While we are all facing challenges at this time, perhaps a significant difference between ourselves and our suffering family in CNEWA’s world is that their lives have always been in turmoil. Their response is to seek out our Lord, who is very much their way, their truth and their life. And from their abiding faith, which has never been dimmed or extinguished by horrible realities, they manage to keep the flame of hope alive in their hearts.
I think those I’ve met have much to teach us all about faith and perseverance, especially now.
In this issue of the magazine, you find firsthand testimonies, “voices from the pandemic,” from those suffering through this time in CNEWA’s world. But their resilience and strength are qualities that I witnessed long before this crisis began. Let me share a few vignettes from my own experience. They are unsung heroes of CNEWA’s world.
Imagine a garbage dump with trash stacked like a mountain, with trucks ascending higher and higher each day, adding to the garbage — and yet, people actually live at the base of this mountain. This is life for countless poor families I met in Egypt. Most are Christian and most of them eke out their meager livelihood by sorting through garbage, claiming first what can be eaten, then what can be recycled and traded. They literally live on compressed garbage.
I remember walking through the neighborhood of the garbage pickers, a place swarming with flies and mosquitoes and rancid odors, and I could see mothers caring for their little ones in such deplorable conditions. One such mother, a Coptic Christian, smiled as we looked into her humble abode — made of pieces of compressed garbage — as she was preparing something in a frying pan over an open fire. Then she greeted me with a big smile and welcomed me to give her and her child a blessing. Yet, in the midst of such squalor, there was no complaining, no turning away from her visitors. She proudly shared with me her reassurance that Jesus was victorious over death, and she shared in that victory as she proudly showed me the cross tattooed on her wrist. Her faith was literally a part of her, and not even the squalor and struggle of her daily life could diminish it.
In India, I was inspired by the hope demonstrated among Adivasi (or indigenous) people who want to learn more about Jesus. In one village, the catechumens, excited about preparing to be baptized, invited the local bishop and me to bless the cornerstone of what would become their church and school. They humbled me with their enthusiasm and their pride in becoming followers of Christ. They had only the beginnings of a church — but that was more than enough!
In one indigenous tribal village in Ethiopia, the elders invited me to sit with them around the fire, after which those new to the faith led me in a “tribal pilgrimage” to their simple chapel, made of thatch and grass. They welcomed me with a pride-filled sign of the cross and spirited singing. Through the humble service of religious men and women, these newcomers to our Catholic traditions were already evangelizing me, sharing their personal testimonies of faith and hope in Jesus.
This “reverse evangelization” has been a recurring reality for me as the president of CNEWA. Again and again in my travels, I have found myself not just sharing the Good News of Jesus, but receiving it from those coming in to the faith. The messenger of the Gospel becomes the beneficiary. What a blessing!
I’ve also been blessed to see how resilient faith can be, even in places devastated by persecution and war.
As one of the first Westerners to be allowed into some newly liberated towns after ISIS had been routed in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain, I saw firsthand the destruction and devastation. I was horrified by the perverse defilement of religious vessels, altars and tabernacles. But I was inspired by the remnant faithful.
During one of my visits, a group of parishioners had just returned after almost two years of being absent during the ISIS occupation. They set about clearing mountains of rubble from a destroyed church to prepare for a celebration of the Eucharist at Easter, just a few weeks away. Not much remained, only a small portion of an altar. For them, the celebration of Holy Mass on Easter would signal a public profession of faith and a restoration of hope.
I thank God for the abiding example demonstrated by the poor, whom we serve in the name of our Holy Father, Pope Francis. My own faith has grown immeasurably because of them. They have nurtured me and inspired me to never lose hope in the Lord — and their witness and example, I believe, can show us how steadfast faith can persevere through any crisis.
I thank them for their example.
On a personal note: As my tenure at CNEWA draws to a close, I also want to thank each of you, who have supported us with your prayers and your gifts. You have enhanced my personal faith and our mutual call to be bearers of hope. May God continue to bless you.
In these most challenging times on the home front, members of our staff have also set themselves apart as true evangelizers — to each other, to our extended family around the world and to me personally. I love all of them and thank them for their service to the church, especially toward those suffering brothers and sisters we are continuing to serve during this pandemic.
I also want to acknowledge the great leadership and moral direction given us by the chair of our board, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and our bishop members of the Board of Trustees. With their endorsement, the Holy See afforded me the honor of serving as president for these past nine years. Their wisdom and willingness to serve the Eastern churches has been a compass for me to check my bearings.
I am indebted to my dear brother priest, Msgr. Peter Vaccari, who becomes president of CNEWA on 1 July. More than a friend and colleague, he has offered me a profound example of holiness and priestly spirituality. His fraternal sharing of our priesthood has been a highlight for me in these months of transition. He will be a wonderful, spirit-filled evangelizer as he steers the ship of CNEWA. I know all of you will afford him your prayerful support.
Finally, in the midst of this crisis, we are reminded once again of that great truth I mentioned at the beginning, following “the way, the truth and the life.” At CNEWA, in good times and in bad, our starting point must always be our relationship with Jesus. We respond to the needs of those we serve with our prayers and with the good works of CNEWA, made possible through the generous gifts of all of you.
Besides my own prayers of gratitude to God for each and every one of you, I add with great confidence the prayers of the poor and oppressed in our CNEWA world.
May God bless you.
Msgr. John. E. Kozar