Have you heard the expression, “baptism by fire”? Well, permit me to describe my own as the new president of CNEWA and of its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.
Last autumn, when I first received word of my appointment from CNEWA’s chair, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, followed by confirmation from the Holy See’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches, I was excited at the prospects of following in the capable footsteps of my friend, Msgr. John E. Kozar, and of his predecessor, Msgr. Robert L. Stern. Under their leadership, CNEWA has grown in these last 33 years to be a powerful voice and an efficient engine in service to the Eastern churches. With a passionate professional staff and a stable of committed partners in North America and in the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe, the task of taking on the role seemed less daunting.
But then the coronavirus pandemic swept through, closing worldwide everything in its wake: commerce, business, government, religious acts — life! For a moment, everything paused, and stood at a standstill. Our world suddenly and eerily went quiet, and dark. CNEWA, too, reflected this sudden turn of events. It was a sad day when we locked the doors to our New York offices. It was sadder when we heard of the many good works of the churches we are privileged to serve shuttering their doors.
However, without skipping a beat, people turned to the church in their need, looking for masks or sanitizers and soaps, perhaps a hot meal or medical care for a sick family member or neighbor — or just a kind ear. And driven by their commitment to the Gospel, religious sisters, lay men and women, priests and bishops throughout CNEWA’s world responded in love, regardless of the faith of those seeking their help. They did what they could, despite the risks, and often with meager resources. These, the foot soldiers of Christ, then turned to us, the CNEWA family, and sought our help.
As with you during this time, many of us were reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah 55:6, 8: “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call him while he is near. … ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord.” And although nothing prepared any of us for what came next, we rolled up our sleeves and got on with what CNEWA does best: We rallied our partners, gathered our resources, assessed and prioritized the needs on the ground, and told our story. We reached out to you, asking for your prayers, and for your financial help, too. And you have responded as you always have, time and again — with loving generosity.
Amid this pandemic — as we rolled out our assistance to the men and women of the Eastern churches as reported in this edition of ONE magazine and daily on social media — another tragedy struck. The blast that tore through the port of Beirut that summer evening in early August not only killed, maimed and destroyed innocent lives, but its fire and force blew the cover off of decades of political negligence and corruption, exacerbating the political and socioeconomic freefall tormenting Lebanon.
Earlier this year, I made my first visits to our offices and sites in Beirut and Amman as part of my CNEWA formation. I could not but feel Lebanon was perched on a dangerous precipice. Its people — no matter how resilient — seemed near despair, helpless and unable to alter a dangerous course for a land they loved. And yet, I felt confident our team members in the Beirut office were as committed as ever to journey with all the people of Lebanon; committed to be instruments of healing and hope in their native land. When I visited the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon with Michel Constantin, our regional director, he pointed to the inscription on one of the monuments with the powerful words of St. John Paul II: “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message.”
This message, my friends, is the power of coexistence: the ability of Christians and Druze and Shiite and Sunni Muslims to live together in reasonable harmony, a conviviality that once dominated the Middle East for centuries, but sadly exists today only in Lebanon.
This message of coexistence is not only important to uphold for Lebanon, and by extension, the Middle East and the entire CNEWA world. It is also important to uphold in our own lives, whether we live in rural Canada, the west coast or in the bustling I-95 corridor linking Miami, New York City and Boston.
We live in a very divisive, violent moment, in what Pope Francis has described as a “throw-away culture.” We live surrounded by so much suffering, for many a time of hopelessness. However, I appeal to you: Our faith invites us to witness the truth in the words of the Gospel, “Yes, God so loved the world he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not die, but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
So I ask you, join us in following the example of the Virgin Mary, who, as Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “is the woman of prayer and work … who sets out from her town ‘with haste’ to be of service to others.” Are we not called to be people of prayer, discernment and haste, messengers of hope and healing wherever we are in the world?
I ask you, too, for your prayers for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, that we remain an effective instrument of the Gospel. And finally, I plead for your support — however you can help. Please know you and your intentions are remembered each day when I offer the sacrifice of the Mass in the CNEWA chapel.
Let my final words of this reflection be words of gratitude, gratitude to you for your interest in the mission of CNEWA and for your prayerful support and solidarity!
God bless you.