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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Pontifical Mission at 50: New York

Dignitaries and long-time friends gather in New York City to commemorate the establishment of the Pontifical Mission.

“My presence here among you today is linked to the establishment 50 years ago of an agency which originated in the special concern of Pope Pius XII for the peoples of the Holy Land and, particularly, for the Palestinians. I refer to the Pontifical Mission for Palestine….

“On the happy occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission, I would like to express sincerely to both the officers and to all their associates at the local level the profound and heartfelt thanks of the Holy See and of the Holy Father himself for their generous and untiring efforts in serving the needs of the peoples of the Holy Land.”

With these words, spoken at the New York headquarters of the United Nations on 25 October 1999, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, recognized the achievements of the Pontifical Mission at the principal event of New York’s two-day celebration of the Mission’s golden jubilee.

A Mass of Thanksgiving. On 24 October, Archbishop Tauran was the principal celebrant at a Mass of Thanksgiving in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Although still recovering from surgery, John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York and President of CNEWA, presided and delivered a homily in which he welcomed hundreds of guests and benefactors who joined the congregation for the event. The Cardinal praised the Pontifical Mission for its work on behalf of the impoverished, often stateless, people of the Middle East, citing the “great sacrifice” required of its staff.

Archbishop Renato Martino, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations; two CNEWA Board members – Bishop Basil H. Losten of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford, Connecticut, and Bishop John J. Nevins of the Diocese of Venice in Florida – and Bishop James M. Moynihan of Syracuse, New York, former Associate Secretary General of CNEWA, were among the concelebrants.

In a much appreciated gesture of fellowship, three Eastern Catholic hierarchs – Bishop Stephen Hector Doueihi of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, Eparch John Elya of the Melkite Greek Catholic Diocese of Newton and Bishop Joseph Younan of the Syrian Catholic Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance – also concelebrated.

The overseas directors of the Pontifical Mission joined former overseas directors and administrators, donors and friends at the Mass. Three octogenarians, Msgr. Francis “Fritz” Kennedy, Msgr. John Meaney and Miss Carol Hunnybun, were among the former directors and administrators present at the event.

Msgr. Stern details Pontifical Mission history. Following the Mass, 300 benefactors, staff members and friends of the Pontifical Mission attended a reception and luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Msgr. Robert L. Stern, President, spoke during the meal about the Mission’s history and work.

“For the past 50 years the Holy See has been engaged in a power struggle in the Middle East,” he declared as he opened his address, “a power struggle with Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. No, not a struggle for or against political power, for the Holy See has no real political power in the modern world – though it has immense moral authority.

“This power struggle,” he went on, “which has been led by the words and the example of the Bishop of Rome, involves the power of love.

“Against a backdrop of violence, oppression and war throughout the Middle East, the Holy Father ceaselessly has been trying to mobilize the forces of love and charity of the Catholic world in favor of the victims – the poor, the afflicted, the sick and the maimed, the helpless, the innocent, the oppressed, the displaced, the refugee.

“‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine,’ taught our Lord, ‘you did for me.’ And so, through the centuries, all his disciples worthy of the name are compelled to the task of charity.”

In his concluding remarks, Msgr. Stern paid tribute to the incredible generosity of the tens of thousands of donors that make possible the work of the Pontifical Mission.

“You are the secret weapon in the Holy Father’s arsenal,” he said. “You are that nuclear device whose powerful but unseen burst of love penetrates the hearts of all those whom we serve. You are the Pontifical Mission.”

A Bethlehem-based Palestinian musical group, Al-Baraem, entertained the gathering with Palestinian music. The leader of the group, Maher Turjman, is also Projects Manager of the Pontifical Mission’s Jerusalem office. In Arabic, “Al-Baraem” means “the blooming of a new flower.” As band members explain, however, this image also conjures up the continuing process of the birth of new life – whether of a flower, a child, a season or a new opportunity.

The following day, Archbishop Tauran offered Mass for a small group of benefactors and special guests in the Lady Chapel of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

In a warm personal welcome, Cardinal O’Connor greeted these supporters of the Pontifical Mission and said that the Mission had been engaged in a “dialogue of charity” in the Middle East, assisting those in need regardless of their religion. The Cardinal also noted that for years Msgr. Stern has “quietly, behind the scenes, been in dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians to further the cause of peace.”

United Nations hosts celebration. That evening more than 500 benefactors and friends gathered at the United Nations to recognize the Pontifical Mission’s achievements. Distinguished guests included more than 40 ambassadors, other members of the United Nations’ diplomatic corps and a large group of Catholic bishops, including William Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore and Vice President of CNEWA.

Archbishop Martino welcomed the guests. “For 50 years the Pontifical Mission has been a manifestation of the love and concern of the Holy Father for all the people of [the Middle East],” he declared.

“From Pope Pius XII to Pope John Paul II, this Mission has been the primary coordinator of relief and development activities in the Middle East undertaken by the Holy See.”

The Archbishop then read a greeting from the Pope in which the Holy Father expressed his gratitude for the work of the Pontifical Mission and imparted his Apostolic Blessing.

Sir Kieran Prendergast, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs of the United Nations, cited “the real difference” the Pontifical Mission had made in the lives of thousands of refugees.

“On behalf of the Secretary-General [Kofi Annan], I would like to congratulate the Holy See for the service to Palestine and other refugees in the Middle East that has been rendered by its Pontifical Mission for Palestine for the past 50 years.

“As it has grappled with the human crises of hunger, illness, homelessness, isolation and despair, the Mission has earned our profound appreciation. Through its energy and generosity, it has not only contributed to the daily sustenance of victims of war, but has also helped build their hope in the possibility of a brighter future and given them the courage to continue to try to achieve it.”

The Under-Secretary-General then cited not only the Pontifical Mission’s emergency and relief assistance to Palestine’s refugees but also community development activities such as support for health care in Gaza and the establishment of academic institutions in the West Bank. He praised the Mission’s grassroots initiatives for dialogue and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, as well as its assistance to other peoples affected by conflict throughout the Middle East.

Msgr. Stern presented a comprehensive history of the work of the Pontifical Mission and its evolution from a provider of stopgap emergency aid to an agency for relief and human development throughout the Middle East. He noted that since its establishment, the Pontifical Mission has given assistance to all who need it, without regard to creed.

“The operating policy of the Pontifical Mission is to respond to where the need is the greatest and where the aid is least,” he said.

“To help those in need regardless of their faith or lack of it… it’s consonant with being a Christian; that is what Jesus has taught us.”

William F. Lee, Chief of the New York Liaison Office of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), spoke warmly of the cooperative relationship between UNRWA and the Pontifical Mission that has endured for 50 years. He noted that even before the establishment of UNRWA, the Pontifical Mission was already in the field working with refugees and the displaced.

Governments praise the Pontifical Mission. Ambassadors representing the peoples served by the Mission spoke of its positive impact on the lives of those represented.

Ambassador Ibra Deguene Ka, Permanent Representative of Senegal to the United Nations and Chairman of the Commission on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, stated that “today, 50 years after its creation, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine remains one of the most active institutions engaged in alleviating the difficult living conditions of the Palestinian people.”

Ambassador Hasan Abu-Nimah, Permanent Representative of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the United Nations, recalled his personal experience with the Pontifical Mission.

“I was a little child in my village, situated south of Jerusalem, in 1947 when troubles in Palestine started and thousands of refugees were escaping the attack on their villages and taking refuge in the villages which were still outside the front line,” he disclosed.

“My village then received thousands of families who were escaping aggression in the neighboring villages. And the Pontifical Mission for Palestine was one of the first organizations to rush to help those people who were in need of food, shelter, clothing and medical care….

“The Pontifical Mission for Palestine first started sending a mobile clinic which visited the village twice a week and offered medical help over a whole day for anybody who needed it. They also offered medicine, clothing and advice….

“I was, I must admit with great pride… one of the people who benefited from that great work,” Ambassador Abu-Nimah said.

Ambassador Selim Tadmoury, Permanent Representative of Lebanon to the United Nations, said that future generations of Lebanese would appreciate the assistance provided by the Mission, “as it has frequently moved from emergency relief to human development, an essential element to peace and prosperity.”

The Pontifical Mission played a unique role in Lebanon throughout its 50 years.

When the Mission was established, its Beirut office was the hub of its overseas activity. Despite the danger, this office remained open during 15 years of civil strife in Lebanon, offering emergency aid to the beleaguered Lebanese – a beacon of hope to a strife-ridden people. Today it helps to rebuild a nation ravaged by war.

Ambassador Nasser Al-Kidwa, Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations, expressed the thanks of the Palestinian people for the assistance provided by the Mission for 50 years. “We cherish the role being undertaken by the Pontifical Mission for Palestine with the deepest gratitude and appreciation,” he said.

Holy Father’s role in Middle East discussed. In a major policy address of the Holy See, keynote speaker Archbishop Tauran noted that Pope John Paul II, like his predecessors, has energetically sought a just and peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian question.

“In his homily for the celebrations of the Martyrs of Otranto on 5 October 1980, the Holy Father dwelt on different factors of the Middle Eastern drama: on the Jewish people, who as a result of tragic experiences and out of a concern for security established the state of Israel; and on the Palestinian people, who are largely excluded from their land,” the Archbishop pointed out.

“On that occasion, [the Pope] called for efforts to make the spirit of unity, mutual respect and understanding prevail over all that divides or sets in opposition peoples and nations,” he said.

Archbishop Tauran also spoke of the Pope’s hope, expressed following his first meeting with Yasser Arafat on 15 September 1982, that “a just and lasting solution to the Middle East conflict would be reached as quickly as possible, a solution which, by excluding recourse to arms and violence – in any form, and especially that of terrorism and reprisal – would lead to the recognition of the right of all peoples, and in particular the Palestinian people, to possess a land of their own, and that of the Israeli people to ensure their own security.”

Archbishop Tauran emphasized the Pope’s “unequivocal opposition to violence, whether perpetrated through acts of terrorism or through acts of repression” as well as the Holy Father’s “recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to a homeland and thus to their being recognized not only as refugees but as a people possessing specific and legitimate rights” and to his “de facto expression of the existence of the state of Israel and of its right to established and secure borders.”

The Secretary for Relations with States also alluded to the Pope’s “firm conviction that there can be no true peace without justice, and that full justice cannot exist without the recognition and acceptance, in a stable, equitable and adequate manner, of the rights of all the peoples involved in the sad conflict.”

With regard to the Pontifical Mission, Archbishop Tauran declared, “I myself, for example, can testify to the commitment and dedication with which the Mission has worked to relieve the suffering of the people of Lebanon.

“While I was assigned to the Apostolic Nunciature in Beirut,” he continued, “the Lebanese, both Christian and Muslim, often expressed their gratitude for the humanitarian activities carried out by the Pontifical Mission…”

A reception for speakers and guests in the Delegates Dining Room of the United Nations closed the event. The next day, Archbishop Tauran visited the joint New York headquarters of the Pontifical Mission and CNEWA, where he was enthusiastically welcomed by the staff.

“The call for peace in the world, first proclaimed at the lowly stable in Bethlehem, still resounds with the same fervor, and many peoples still yearn for the attainment of this great goal,” Archbishop Tauran had earlier pointed out. Until that goal is reached, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine will continue to provide help and hope to people in need in the Middle East.

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