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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Pontifical Mission at 50: Amman

Jordanians assemble in Amman to recognize the achievements of this unique papal agency.

Usually there are complications in crossing the Jordan River, the boundary between Israeli-occupied Palestine and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. But on 27 November, the Israeli authorities simplified the control procedures for the small Vatican party – Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Msgr. Maurizio Malvestiti, Msgr. Robert Stern, Msgr. Denis Madden and Father Guido Gockel – and gave the exceptional permission for their cars to drive over the Allenby (King Hussein) Bridge into Jordan.

Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, Apostolic Nuncio to Jordan, Mr. Ra’ed Bahou, Pontifical Mission’s Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq, and Mr. Khalil Al-Hinn, Finance Manager of our Amman office, welcomed the group at the other side of the bridge and with a Jordanian military and police escort sped them up the main highway to the capital city of Amman.

An informal luncheon with Jordan’s two Catholic bishops – Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Petra and Philadelphia George Al-Murr and Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan Bishop Selim Sayegh – and the Holy See’s Chargé for Jordan, Msgr. Charles Balvo of New York, opened the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission in Jordan.

At a press conference later that afternoon, Msgr. Stern, Msgr. Madden and Mr. Bahou met with representatives of ten news agencies. There was considerable interest in the anniversary events, especially since the concluding banquet was under the official patronage of King Abdullah II bin Hussein of Jordan.

Public celebrations began in the early evening with a Mass of Thanksgiving in the church of the De La Salle Christian Brothers school, a convenient location in Jebel Hussein, near the center of Amman. The principal celebrant, who represented the Pope, was Cardinal Silvestrini. He was joined at the altar by Archbishop Al-Murr, Bishop Sayegh, Msgr. Stern and Msgr. Madden. Several of Jordan’s Catholic priests concelebrated.

Mr. Bahou served as lector for the Mass, our other Amman office staff members participated in the Prayer of the Faithful and an impressive choir sang in both Latin and Arabic. The Apostolic Nuncio read the Holy Father’s message to the assembled congregation.

In his homily, Archbishop Al-Murr paid tribute to the work of the Pontifical Mission in the kingdom:

“If I were to describe in one word the work of the Pontifical Mission, I could find no better word than ‘inclusive.’

“The Mission sympathetically, affectionately and generously takes care of all basic human needs, such as food, clothing, shelter and medical care. The interests of the Pontifical Mission, however, are not limited to basic human needs alone. The Mission also cares for the soul, through its support of child education programs, the sponsorship of orphans, the handicapped, the destitute and the aged. In addition, the Mission also improves village and camp infrastructure, such as water sources, sewage treatment and electricity.

“In short, the Pontifical Mission is like a mother who looks after all her children’s needs, materially, spiritually and socially.”

An unusual and unexpected honor was the presence of Prince Ra’d bin Zeid and his wife, Princess Majida, at the Mass, perhaps the first time that a member of the royal family attended such an event. The Prince was deputed by King Abdullah to represent him at the celebrations.

Later in the evening, following Jordanian custom, Cardinal Silvestrini, Msgr. Stern, Msgr. Madden and Mr. Ra’ed Bahou greeted each of the some 400 guests as they arrived for the anniversary banquet at Amman’s Intercontinental Hotel.

Although Christians are only a small minority among the population of Jordan, 14 bishops and 63 priests attended, representing the kingdom’s Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant communities. Guests also included 35 Catholic religious sisters and almost 100 ambassadors, embassy personnel, delegates of international governmental and nongovernmental organizations and Jordanian officials.

Our Amman office director, Mr. Ra’ed Bahou, was master of ceremonies for the celebration, welcoming the guests, presenting first Msgr. Stern and then, following his address, Cardinal Silvestrini.

Msgr. Stern’s remarks surveyed the development of the work of the Pontifical Mission, especially in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The flood of Palestinian refugees into the kingdom fleeing the Israeli occupation of the remainder of Palestine in 1967 provoked a tremendous expansion of the Mission’s work in Jordan.

“We needed to establish a base of operations in Amman, so in 1971 we opened our Jordanian office,” explained the Pontifical Mission President. “In the beginning we worked closely with UNRWA. One of our first projects in Jordan was to help build the first school in the Baqa’a refugee camp.”

He paid tribute to the work of the Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood, who started the Pontifical Mission mother-and-child clinics in the Marka neighborhood of Amman and the nearby city of Zerqa, and to the members of the Teresian Association who developed Amman’s only Christian community library.

Cardinal Silvestrini’s warm and encouraging words offered a particular tribute to the Pontifical Mission’s work in Jordan. “As Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, I extended my warmest congratulations.

“This agency has consistently provided for the poorest of the poor in an area routinely ravaged by war, disease and prejudice. It has served with distinction by offering a firsthand experience of Christian charity to Iraqis who had lost hope and Jordanians seeking dignity.”

“Over the years,” the Cardinal added, “I have been most fortunate to see many of these efforts. Works at the Zerqa clinic, Italian Hospital and the Pontifical Mission Library cannot leave you unimpressed. However in observing the results, we can sometimes fail to comprehend the sacrifices that each entails. The complications of the recent years tested your staff and strained your resources. Yet, you persevered and even devised new, creative ways of making the Gospel tangible for all to experience.”

A film on the work of the Pontifical Mission in Jordan, prepared especially for the occasion, was presented next. It opened with rare historical footage introducing vividly the plight of the early Palestinian refugees. The multifaceted works of the Pontifical Mission in health care, family and child care, education and rural development were illustrated at length.

For much of the audience, the film was a revelation. Over the years the Pontifical Mission had worked so inconspicuously that few realized the extent of its accomplishments. Prince Ra’d expressed great interest in learning more about the Mission’s services, especially those for the handicapped, since he himself is concerned with some of the charitable and humanitarian works of the kingdom.

When the Prince took the podium to express the appreciation of the royal family and the people of Jordan for the work of the Pontifical Mission, he announced that King Abdullah was bestowing on Msgr. Stern the Order of Independence of the first degree – an honor rarely granted to others than heads of state – a tribute to the contribution of all of the churches to the people of the Kingdom of Jordan.

In his brief words of acknowledgment and gratitude, Msgr. Stern expressed the sentiment that the award, although bestowed on him, really was for the selfless and dedicated work of our staff and collaborators in Jordan over the years.

The last event before the meal was the ceremonial cutting of a special cake decorated to mark the occasion. Cardinal Silvestrini, representing the Pope, and Prince Ra’d, representing the King, carried out that happy task together.

Like the cake, the entire program of events in Amman was a sweet and special treat for all of the Pontifical Mission staff, collaborators, beneficiaries and friends. At least for the day, the “inconspicuous” agency of the Holy Father at the service of the people and churches of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was inconspicuous no longer.

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