The Pope receives members of the Pontifical Mission, 9 December 1999. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano)
Pope John Paul II greets the daughter of CNEWA-Pontifical Mission staff member. (photo: L’Osservatore Romano)
Pope John Paul II speaks with Msgr. Robert L. Stern at the conclusion of the papal audience. (photo: Arturo Mari)
Holy Father, you should know that they are all fiercely proud of working for you and overjoyed to be here with you, I said to Pope John Paul II after he had greeted the last member of our Pontifical Mission staff.
I was standing next to the Pope in the Consistorial Hall of the Apostolic Palace and had just presented to him by name each staff member from our Amman, Beirut, Jerusalem and Vatican City offices and 22 staff members from the joint New York headquarters of the Pontifical Mission and CNEWA.
Why me? Besides being CNEWAs Secretary General, I am also President of the Pontifical Mission originally the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and now the Holy Sees relief and development agency for the entire Middle East.
We were in Rome to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Missions establishment and 50 years of its good work. The day had begun with a solemn Mass of Thanksgiving offered by Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peters Basilica.
Amid the violence and bloodshed that followed the United Nations partition of Palestine, the Pontifical Mission was conceived as an instrumentality of the love and concern of the Holy Father and of the whole Catholic world for the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and refugees.
At its start in June 1949, the Pontifical Mission coordinated the relief efforts of the local and international churches in Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Arab Palestine, Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon.
The early years saw the provision of emergency shelter and distribution of food, clothing and medicine to the refugees. As no resolution to their plight appeared, the Mission provided institutional services such as schools, clinics and homes for the handicapped, the orphaned, the aged and the infirm.
With the Israeli occupation of the rest of Palestine in 1967, the Pontifical Mission began to respond to the needs of an entire civilian population living under martial law and without normal social institutions. It also had to face a new refugee crisis and emergency needs in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The woes of the Middle East continued. With the increase of civil strife in Lebanon, our beneficiaries were no longer just Palestinian but Lebanese as well.
The start of the intifada in 1987 offered new challenges for our work in the Holy Land. Now the Pontifical Mission aided grassroots organizations, providing medical assistance, agricultural aid, legal advocacy and other vital services to the Palestinian people.
The 1991 Gulf War brought waves of Iraqi refugees to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Again, the love and concern of the Holy Father reached out to them through the Missions work.
Would that after 50 years there were no need for a special relief and development agency of the Holy See. Alas, its services are still needed and continue through the generosity of the donors of CNEWA; the Swiss-German Kinderhilfe Bethlehem; Kindermissionswerk, Misereor, Missio, and the Archdiocese of Cologne in Germany; and other Catholic agencies throughout the world.
Why did we celebrate this 50th anniversary? On the down side its a half century of war, violence, dispossession and human suffering. But on the up side it is a wonderful record of love, concern and international solidarity with the afflicted peoples of the Middle East.
During these 50 years, more than $150,000,000 was raised for the most part from individual donors and expended in the Middle East in the name of the Holy Father.
The Secretariat of State of the Holy See encouraged a public observance of this charitable work of the Pope. This gave an opportunity for witness and testimony to the Churchs presence and concern for justice and peace in the Holy Land and throughout the Middle East.
The first celebration of the anniversary took place in New York at the United Nations Headquarters on 25 October. The event there, of course, had an international character; it also offered an opportunity for many benefactors to participate.
On 26 November the anniversary was appropriately observed in Palestine itself in the little town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Lord whose love and teachings inspire the Missions work.
The next day the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan celebrated this beautiful work of the Holy See in favor not only of Palestinian refugees but also of needy Jordanians.
Lebanon was the site of the third and final Middle East observance of the 50th anniversary, the country where presently the Pontifical Mission conducts its largest program the restoration of village infrastructure and the return of displaced villagers to their homes.
Lastly and appropriately we gathered around the Holy Father himself in Rome. Yes, we are all fiercely proud of working for him and Im fiercely proud of you, whose love and generosity make all this good work possible.
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA