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Pontifical Mission at 50: Rome

The Holy Father recognizes the Mission as an eloquent sign of international solidarity.

When the great 17th century Italian sculptor and architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini completed the colonnade that, reaching out from either side of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, enfolds St. Peter’s Square, the Catholic Reformation was in full force. He designed the colonnade to resemble a pair of arms, as if the Church of Rome were embracing all those – Catholic or not – who approached the shrine built over the site of the death and burial of the first Bishop of Rome.

On 9 December staff members of the Pontifical Mission gathered in a cold and wet square sheltered by the embrace of the colonnade. Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese and Americans – Armenian, Latin, Maronite and Melkite Greek Catholics and Armenian, Coptic, Greek and Syrian Orthodox – Pontifical Mission staff all – approached the great doors of the basilica, carrying our prayers and concerns. There, the Holy See welcomed us in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the founding of its relief and development agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.

At the Altar of the Chair, an explosion of marble, stone and bronze designed by Bernini to enshrine the traditional throne of St. Peter, Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, celebrated a solemn Mass of Thanksgiving. Members of the Sistine Chapel choir – in marked contrast to the Baroque splendor of the basilica – harmonized the simple tones and melodies of the liturgy’ traditional Advent music. Flanked at the altar by Cardinals Roger Etchegaray, D. Simon Lourdusamy and Pio Laghi and Msgr. Robert Stern and joined by nine archbishops and bishops, many priests, religious and laity, the Cardinal spoke in his homily of the unique mission of the Pontifical Mission:

“‘The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the Lord, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.’ [Isaiah 41:17]

“There is no biblical text,” observed the Cardinal in Italian, “more appropriate for the occasion we celebrate today: the foundation of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

“The men and women [of the Pontifical Mission] whom we commemorate today,” he continued, “have demonstrated that humankind knows not only the deadliness of the abuse of power, but also the sweetness of assistance. They have contributed and continue to contribute to make the world a better place, or the journey toward the transfiguration of love when God will be all in all.”

After the liturgy, we gathered in a local trattoria for a cappuccino before the next great Rome event: a private audience with the Holy Father. The tempo of our group picked up as we passed the Swiss Guards – cloaked in their blue and gold uniforms designed by Michelangelo and standing by the Bronze Door – climbed the grand staircase and filed through the frescoed halls of the Apostolic Palace. For most of us, this was our first opportunity to meet personally with the man whom many consider the greatest leader, religious or secular, of the 20th century.

As we were ushered into the Consistorial Hall, the papal master of ceremonies asked us to take our places. Our excitement was suppressed by awe – we were waiting for the Pope! – and we focused our eyes on a curtained archway. The Pontiff walked into the silent audience chamber with a cane in hand and seated himself. We all broke into applause.

“Most Holy Father,” Cardinal Silvestrini said, introducing the Pontifical Mission and its staff, “these promoters and witnesses of solidarity in the name of the Church have come to ask Your Holiness, who presides over universal charity, for a word of encouragement and guidance.

“Even in changed circumstances,” he said, “the commitment of this papal agency must remain firm because the need to work for justice and charity in the countries of the Middle East is, unfortunately, still immense.”

“In the past 50 years,” the Pope responded, “the Middle East has not ceased to experience moments of great tension and conflict, often exploding in acts of violence and outright war. In these circumstances, the Pontifical Mission has increased its efforts aimed at helping the local populations to rebuild their lives.

“In this way,” the Holy Father continued, “the Pontifical Mission is an eloquent expression of that ‘new culture of international solidarity and cooperation’ (Incarnationis mysterium, n. 12) which is so necessary in the modern world, and which must be a hallmark of the new millennium.

“I pray that you and all those associated with the work of the Mission will be renewed in faith and love as you seek ever better ways of helping those in need not only of material support but especially of opportunities for personal and social development,” the Pope concluded. “This is the surest path for establishing a true and lasting peace in the lives of the peoples of the Middle East.”

After bestowing his Apostolic Blessing on the staff of the Pontifical Mission and its benefactors, the Holy Father greeted Msgr. Stern, who then introduced to the Pope each staff member present from our offices in Amman, Beirut, Jerusalem, Rome and New York.

Although slowed by his infirmities, the Pope’s face lit up when Msgr. Stern introduced three children of staff members. He embraced each child, kissing them on their foreheads. There was not a dry eye in the hall.

“Holy Father,” Msgr. Stern said after he introduced the last staff member of the Mission, “you should know that they are all fiercely proud of working for you and overjoyed to be here with you.”

Msgr. Stern later commented that this was the first time all members of the Pontifical Mission’s offices – Amman, Beirut, Jerusalem and Vatican City – and many from New York had gathered together. How appropriate, therefore, that we gathered in Rome to meet with the man under whose auspices our work is conducted.

For many of the Pontifical Mission, the path to Rome had been long, one filled with sacrifice, trying encounters and even danger.

Staff members in Amman, although sheltered from the violence and turmoil afflicting much of the Middle East, are descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled to the Hashemite Kingdom after the establishment of the state of Israel. While the work of the Pontifical Mission in Amman is frequently described as unassuming, it is nevertheless essential: health care for Iraqi refugees; pre- and postnatal care for Palestinian refugees and poor Jordanians; food, shelter and medical care for thousands of needy children; the support of programs for youth, including a community library; rural development projects and women empowerment programs.

In Beirut, much of the staff spent the latter years of the civil war ensuring uninterrupted support for our needy children; visiting impoverished displaced families in Beirut neighborhoods devastated by war and supplying emergency medical and relief supplies; traveling to villages, laden with bandages, dried milk and moral support. Since the war, our team in Beirut has spearheaded a village rehabilitation program that seeks to revitalize villages destroyed by the war and encourage resettlement. A witness to the destruction of their country, the Pontifical Mission in Beirut is now actively engaged in its restoration.

While in theory the Pontifical Mission in Jerusalem is free to tackle head on the problems facing a people under occupation, the staff must nevertheless deal with the reality of living under martial law and the ambiguity of a partial peace. Military checkpoints and searches are constant reminders that Palestinians, while living in their homeland, are subject to an occupying force. Nevertheless, our Jerusalem staff supports a tremendous diversity of programs and projects: renovation of housing in the Old City of Jerusalem; consistent support for educational programs and schools, especially Bethlehem University; care of needy and handicapped children; maintenance of health care projects; and the encouragement and support of reconciliation programs involving Palestinians and Israelis.

Indeed the staff of the Pontifical Mission is fiercely proud of what it does and in whose name it is done.

After the audience, invited guests and staff members of the Pontifical Mission gathered at the Columbus Hotel, an early Renaissance palazzo located on the main thoroughfare leading to St. Peter’s Basilica. After an enjoyable Roman luncheon, Cardinal Silvestrini again spoke of the mission and work of the Pontifical Mission and its value in contributing to a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.

In his address, Msgr. Stern commented that, “the Pontifical Mission was conceived as an instrumentality of the love and concern of the Holy Father and the Catholic world for the displaced and the refugee.

“What was founded as a temporary relief mission of the Holy See for Palestinian refugees is now the Holy See’s relief and development agency for the entire Middle East.”

As a sign of the Holy See’s gratitude, Cardinal Silvestrini bestowed a Knighthood of St. Gregory on Mr. Ra’ed Bahou, our Regional Director for Jordan and Iraq, and Mr. Issam Bishara, our Regional Director for Lebanon and Syria. Father Guido Gockel, M.H.M., Regional Director for Palestine and Israel, received the prestigious Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (For the Church and Pope) award.

That evening the entire group shared good food and even better company in a local trattoria. The festivities observing the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission were drawing to close, but the staff of the Pontifical Mission left Rome revitalized with new enthusiasm for the service of the peoples and churches of the Middle East.

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