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Pontifical Mission at 50: Beirut

Lebanon salutes a half-century of tireless dedication of the Pontifical Mission.

The busload of villagers from the Sunni Muslim village of Korhaya traveled over the mountains early on Sunday morning, 28 November, to Beirut to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission. These villagers, thankful for the irrigation system and apple and lemon saplings provided for their village by the Mission, were anxious to express their thanks.

Korhayans are just one of many living examples of the sentiments expressed by Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and personal representative of Pope John Paul II, at the Pontifical Mission’s 50th anniversary celebration in Lebanon when he said: “Wherever the Pontifical Mission labors…it enacts a recurring theme of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in the Apostolic Exhortation, ‘New Hope for Lebanon,’ namely, ‘to work in a spirit of conviviality that fosters togetherness and transcends mere coexistence.’”

The celebration of the Pontifical Mission in Lebanon was truly a gathering of the people, whether Muslim, Druze or Christian. These communities gathered together not only to celebrate 50 years of service of the Pontifical Mission but to recognize all that was accomplished by these communities working together – even communities that were once bitter enemies.

The Beirut celebration marked the third day in a row of anniversary celebrations in the Middle East. Following the celebrations in Amman, Cardinal Silvestrini, Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Msgr. Denis Madden, Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Mr. Ra’ed Bahou and Msgr. Maurizio Malvestiti boarded a plane on Sunday morning and flew from Amman, over the Jordanian desert and parts of Syria and along the Lebanese coast to Beirut.

The group was met in Beirut by Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò, Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon, their colleague Mr. Issam Bishara, Regional Director for Lebanon and Syria, and members of the Beirut staff.

After an informal lunch, the group assembled at the Basilica of Notre Dame du Liban at Harissa to prepare for the first event – the celebration of the Mass of Thanksgiving.

Fifteen hundred Lebanese, including four patriarchs and 45 bishops, priests, religious and laity made up the jubilant congregation. Not only Christians but a great number of Muslims and Druze from the many villages served by the Mission throughout the years came to give thanks. The importance of this event was evidenced by the live television broadcast of the Mass throughout Lebanon.

Msgrs. Stern and Madden assisted Cardinal Silvestrini, the principal celebrant, at the altar. The choir, in beautiful harmony, helped raise the minds and hearts of all. Minister Sleiman Traboulsi, Minister Hasan Shalak and Deputy Samir Azar represented President Emile Lahoud, Prime Minister Selim El Hoss and President of the National Assembly Nabih Berri, respectively, at the Mass.

As a theme for his homily, Patriarch Nasrallah Cardinal Sfeir paraphrased the words of Luke 1:43, “Why should I be honored?:”

“His Holiness Pope Pius XII founded the Pontifical Mission in order to support the refugees, the distressed and the poor in general in a similar act to that of the Virgin Mary towards her relative Elizabeth who gave a loud cry and said when she saw the Virgin Mary in her home: ‘Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of my Lord?’ In a similar manner the Pontifical Mission had so honored Lebanon.”

Commenting on the Pontifical Mission’s village restoration program, the Patriarch went on to say that, “the Pontifical Mission concentrated its activities towards the Palestinians at first and then extended its aid to include the Lebanese people, particularly upon the start of the destructive Lebanese war that displaced a large portion of its population. The Pontifical Mission has been faithful to its goal for the last 50 years.”

The Patriarch also reflected on a theme emphasized by Msgr. Stern throughout all the anniversary celebrations: “The Mission’s aid and activities were extended to include all the victims of war, violence and poverty in the region especially in Lebanon, regardless of creed or nationality.”

The Patriarch’s homily demonstrated his own personal awareness of the activities of the Pontifical Mission in more than 250 Lebanese villages over the past half-century.

“The Mission financed the reconstruction of war-damaged infrastructure, homes, schools and churches. It helps in reclamation of agricultural land and provided the sick and needy with medication. It also established a special sponsorship program for needy children.”

The Patriarch’s point was illustrated by the various groups in the congregation who were there to celebrate this day. The people of Merkebta, for example, where the Pontifical Mission constructed a sewage treatment plant and dispensary, chartered two buses for the celebration. The village of Andekt chartered five buses to carry 250 villagers – almost every adult in the village – to Harissa for the Mass of Thanksgiving. They wanted to participate in the celebration; they wanted everyone to know about their working partnership with the Pontifical Mission.

All projects undertaken by the Mission result from a consultation with the villagers in a prospective project area. Nothing is ever forced or given away; in fact, beneficiaries contribute up to 40 percent of the cost of their project in money, land or labor. For this reason, they are not only beneficiaries but also partners of the Pontifical Mission – partners who would see to it that once projects are completed they would be cared for and maintained.

An example of this cooperative effort can be seen in the villagers of Azkeh, who also traveled to Harissa for the big event. Years ago the villagers asked the Pontifical Mission to help them build a school. Once the frame and interior of the building were complete (and although workers were still painting the building’s exterior), the school filled with more than 200 eager students. Azkeh was very proud to participate in this anniversary celebration.

In fact, representatives from almost every area village that had received help from the Pontifical Mission were present at the event. The question of why they came is probably best answered in the statement of one municipal chief: “You [the Pontifical Mission] were the only ones truly interested in our village.”

A reception and banquet at the Century Park Hotel followed the Mass. Msgr. Stern reviewed the history and work of the Pontifical Mission in Lebanon and Cardinal Silvestrini delivered a brief address, also calling attention to the Mission’s work of village development. “In a sectarian, competitive atmosphere, the Pontifical Mission has contributed to peace as it restored the destroyed villages of the Chouf and Aley, simultaneously, returning the Christian population to their ancestral homes.”

Minister Traboulsi reflected on the Lebanese government’s gratitude for the work of the Pontifical Mission. On behalf of President Lahoud, he awarded Msgr. Stern the Order of the Cedar, the country’ highest honor.

Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchal Vicar Archbishop Isidore Battikha spoke on behalf of Patriarch Maximos V, who expressed his thanks to Msgr. Stern and the Pontifical Mission for “generously and constantly [helping] all our Churches of the Middle East” by making Msgr. Stern a Knight Commander in the Patriarchal Order of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem.

In his congratulatory remarks the Armenian Apostolic Catholicos of Cilicia, Aram I, echoed the theme of many others – that the Pontifical Mission is an agency of service: “My close relations with the Pontifical Mission made me realize that it is more than a humanitarian organization,” the Catholicos said. “It is essentially a diakonia, people-oriented service. In fact, diakonia belongs to the essential nature of the church…it fulfills its true vocation as the diakonia of God among the people: the poor, the needy, the marginalized, the victims of injustice and violence.”

Msgr. Stern accepted the honors bestowed on him on behalf of the staff of the Beirut office and all his collaborators throughout the years. Although it is true that such honors must be shared, it is also true that his vision and leadership so encouraged those around him that dreams of helping others became realities.

Msgr. Stern expressed his hope that a time would come when there would no longer be a need for the work of the Pontifical Mission. Until that day arrives, however, the Pontifical Mission will forge ahead into the new millennium, as Patriarch Sfeir said, “in the spirit of the great jubilee of the year 2000…practice repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation (and) feel the pleasure of giving and sacrifice towards the poor and the needy.”

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