ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

On Fire for the Cause of Christ

A tribute to Msgr. Thomas J. McMahon, National Secretary of CNEWA (1943-1955) and first President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

When I picked up the 18 September issue of Newsweek, the striking headline, “Peace at Last?” expressed the thoughts of millions captivated by the signed accord between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. When I thought further of the collapse of the Berlin wall and the demise of communism, I mused, “What a time to be alive!”

From 1943 to 1955, Monsignor Thomas J. McMahon, National Secretary of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, directed the Association through a similar period, one that witnessed the horrors of World War II, the division of Europe, the creation of the State of Israel and the ensuing Palestinian refugee crisis.

A passage from an April 1949 report from Msgr. McMahon to Francis Cardinal Spellman, then Archbishop of New York and President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, illustrates the frenetic pace of activity at that time:

…our money has been used for Russian refugees in Argentina, for the same in France, Germany, Holland, and even for Polish refugees in Iran, Lebanon and Egypt, for Ruthenians in Germany…food packages every month to Germany …Mass offerings for Ruthenian refugee priests…support of the Ruthenian refugee seminary in Holland…$100,000 grant for Ukrainian refugees in Germany…another grant to Palestinian relief…

A priest of the Archdiocese of New York, Msgr. McMahon was appointed assistant national secretary to Msgr. Bryan McEntegart in June 1943. In August 1943, Msgr. McEntegart was selected as Bishop of Ogdensburg, N.Y., and McMahon succeeded him as national secretary.

Five turbulent years later, one act by the United Nations on 29 November 1947 would have a significant impact on Catholic Near East Welfare Association and its erstwhile national secretary – the partition of Palestine.

After this partition, which created the State of Israel, McMahon traveled to the Holy Land under the instructions of Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches. The monsignor intended to study the situation created by the establishment of Israel and the subsequent Arab rejection of the partition. Refugees swarmed the new state’s neighbors and Pope Pius XII was anxious about this new group of exiles. Palestine was the Holy Land, the “hometown” of Christianity. The pontiff was concerned about the status of the holy places; Muslim caliphs had brokered a delicate balance of power among the rival Christian groups in the Middle Ages. Would this change? Also, many of these new refugees were Christian Arabs. What would happen to the indigenous Christian communities in the land of Jesus’ birth?

Recommendations for action were sought by the Holy See – Rome valued the insight and judgment of McMahon, and his analysis and opinions were accepted and followed.

One of McMahon’s recommendations was to create a pontifical organization that would coordinate the church’s diverse efforts in the region on behalf of the Palestinian refugees.

As this idea was thrashed out in a Vatican meeting held in November 1948, Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, who organized and directed the Holy See’s refugee relief ventures during World War II, penciled the name of Thomas McMahon as a candidate to lead such an agency. Msgr. Montini would later earn fame as Pope Paul VI.

In April 1949, the Holy See announced the creation of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. Msgr. Thomas McMahon was named its president while retaining the position of national secretary of the Association, hence the development of the unique “sister” relationship between Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Pontifical Mission. To date, the secretary general of the Association has always been the president of the Pontifical Mission as well.

This new responsibility, coupled with the Association’s already extensive agenda, could have overwhelmed a lesser individual. The task was simply enormous. The New York priest was responsible for coordinating funding from a number of Catholic agencies in the United States, including the predecessor of Catholic Relief Services, War Relief Services – National Catholic Welfare Conference. There were also the Catholic agencies from Central and South America, as well as Europe. Added to this already extensive list were international Catholic funding agencies such as the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and numerous religious orders and congregations. All played a role in assisting the Palestinian refugees.

In the field, McMahon was responsible for distributing goods and services to an exhausted refugee population. To that end the monsignor structured local committees in what he called Arab Palestine (West Bank), Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan (Jordan), Israel and Gaza. A forthright individual, McMahon noted occasionally in his correspondence that this was frequently a complex task since the culture of the Middle East often precluded a direct resolution of problems. Pride, culture and the tensions of war and displacement all merged to affect even charitable work and the practice of Christianity.

McMahon began quickly, working with governmental organizations and the United Nations. He excelled in organizing resources to erect housing, schools, clinics and churches – all of which provided services to the refugees based on need, not creed. In his writings, McMahon noted that God did not discriminate in the suffering of the refugees; hence, he wrote, we should not do so in responding to their needs.

A compassionate man, he was deeply moved by the suffering of all people. When he sailed to the Holy Land in 1948, he traveled on a ship loaded with Jewish refugees. The monsignor was the only Christian passenger aboard the Hatikvah. His extensive journeys through the Middle East moved him profoundly as the region destabilized and erupted into a new kind of war with its consequent hazards for noncombatants.

A keen observer and ever loyal to the needs of the church, McMahon had extensive correspondence with the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine and two secretaries general of the U.N.: Trygve Lie and Dag Hammarskjold.

Always he pleaded on behalf of the humanitarian needs of the refugees and noted that the special character of Jerusalem and the holy places – Christian, Jewish and Muslim – must be protected. So strong were his concerns he gave testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on 26 July 1951. In his statement he noted,

The Palestinian Arabs are the innocent victims of warfare that engulfed them and forced them out of their homes, and as the fourth successive year of this tragedy now begins, it finds them in the same continuing need…

McMahon’s pleas on behalf of the Palestinians, however, aroused concern from the American-Jewish community, which perceived his stance on behalf of the Palestinians as opposition to the existence of the State of Israel.

Extensive memoranda to Cardinal Spellman record lively exchanges with American Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Gold, Rabbi Bernard Landers and Rabbi Hillel Silver. Also, McMahon met with Aubrey Eban, Israel’s U.N. representative, as well as Chaim Herzog (later president of the Jewish state) and Moshe Sharrett (Shertok), Israel’s foreign minister at that time. Clearly both the American-Jewish community and the Israelis were interested in the views of this New York-born priest. As one would expect, his meetings were often tense gatherings as McMahon sought justice for the Palestinians while the Israelis sought the security of their own state.

McMahon summed up his views on these matters quite clearly in his responses to Congress’s questions on 26 July 1951. He noted with some prophetic vision:

…I say you cannot settle the question of the refugees, you cannot get the friendship of these Arab people for the United States or Britain so long as the Palestine question remains unresolved….

You will never achieve peace in the Middle East until you have given these hundreds of thousands of people the rights that are most certainly theirs.

Msgr. McMahon noted further:

Palestine is the Holy Land on which three rights are involved. The three rights are Jewish, Moslem and Christian, so that one is not anti-Semitic when he urges the Christian right in Palestine.

McMahon’s testimony is as prophetic today is it was when he uttered it more than 40 years ago.

In a statement made at the United Nations in 1947 and reported in The New York Times, McMahon is quoted as saying,

We are not unaware that there are forces striving to perpetuate social chaos, to facilitate ideological infiltration and to gain control of the vast underground wealth of oil in the Near East.

How many commentators spoke about Near East oil in 1947?

McMahon was an astute observer and an articulate commentator. Memoranda to superiors are incisive and pointed. In debate he was a formidable presence. The archives of the Association and the Pontifical Mission reveal that he was a prolific writer. His writings contain not only references to Palestine, but tracts on the heritage and spirituality of the many Eastern churches.

Consumed by zeal for those he served, he was often asked to speak to groups interested in Middle Eastern affairs. There he pleaded for funds, clothing and supplies for the scores of Europeans exhausted by war and displacement and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians whose plight resembled their European counterparts.

One cannot neglect to note that McMahon was ably assisted by the Rev. Andrew Rogash and Monsignors Joseph F. Connelly and Peter P. Tuohy; the latter succeeded McMahon as national secretary in 1955. Also one must note the administrative team that operated out of Beirut – the first Pontifical Mission site – which was headed by the Rev. RaphaelKratzer, O.F.M., and the Rev. William Kailer Dunn.

On 16 March 1955, Msgr. McMahon tendered a simple resignation. It should come as no surprise to the reader that overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of his life, McMahon was now in poor health. Assigned as pastor to the Church of Our Savior in Manhattan, he died on 6 December 1956 at the young age of 47.

In a letter to Cardinal Spellman thanking him for the notification of McMahon’s impending resignation, Cardinal Tisserant noted with some wisdom that, “He literally was on fire for the cause of Christ.” Little did the cardinal realize how consuming that fire had been. In a letter to McMahon, the French cardinal stated, “Your name is held in grateful memory by thousands of refugees from Palestine, who without your timely and effective intervention would have been lost as homeless wanderers.”

In the eulogy delivered by his longtime associate, Msgr. Joseph Connelly, it was noted,

Greeted as ardently by the Holy Father in Rome or by the Fellahin children along the Nile Basin, he belonged equally to the Papal Household as to the fly-infested homes of the impoverished refugees.

By a twist of circumstances, at the time of McMahon’s funeral Mass, both his mother and father, in separate hospitals in New York City, lay dying, unaware that their son had gone before them.

What would Monsignor Thomas J. McMahon say of our world with its fits and starts for peace, endless parades of refugees, ethnic rivalries, exploitation and assorted ills? He would probably say “I’ve been there,” and then wisely advise us in words written about the agency of which he was president:

The Pontifical Mission emphasized beyond all other works those of an enduring nature. It met the needs of the moment, but in away to provide hope for the future.

Brother David Carroll, F.S.C., is the Association’s director of programs.

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