ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

The Pontifical Mission for Palestine

Five popes have maintained a unique mission to serve the displaced people of the Middle East. The mission’s role has grown to meet new challenges.

On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a plan for the partition of Palestine. With the withdrawal of British forces from the area on the termination of the British mandate, Arabs and Jews would be left to resolve their claims to this land by armed struggle.

In the Vatican, Pope Pius XII followed this situation with special concern. The relative harmony among residents of the birthplace of Christ was disintegrating. Local Arab Christians were in jeopardy. The holy places sacred to Christianity were threatened. Innocent people were being displaced from their homes, and massive suffering was inevitable.

On May 1, 1948, the Holy Father asked for public prayers for world peace, especially for a resolution of the problems in Palestine. He beseeched the faithful to pray “that the situation in Palestine may at long last be settled justly and thereby concord and peace be also happily established.”

The British High Commissioner left Palestine two weeks later, and the State of Israel was proclaimed. Full-scale warfare erupted between Arab and Jewish forces for control of Palestinian territory. As hostilities continued in the following months, the Holy Father’s concern deepened. He again called for prayers for peace in Palestine. The pope expressed his sorrow at the bloodshed in the land of Christ and his distress for the thousands left homeless and hungry.

Pope Pius XII sought to attain justice and peace in Palestine “without abandoning the attitude of impartiality.” Through his representatives in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt he provided emergency relief to all in need. At the same time he encouraged Catholics in various countries to undertake efforts to aid displaced people of the region.

Even though an armistice began in February of 1949, displaced Palestinians were in need of continuing support – food, medical care, housing, and other essential services. The Holy Father again drew the world’s attention to their need on Good Friday of that year. He wrote, “The condition of these exiles is so critical and unstable that it cannot longer be permitted to continue.”

In such a volatile political situation, an independent mission of emergency relief was essential. The Holy Father wanted to unify the humanitarian and charitable efforts of the Church among the refugees in the Holy Land.

In April of 1949, Pope Pius summoned to Rome Monsignor Thomas J. McMahon, told him of his intention to organize a special mission for Palestine, and named him its president. The national secretary of Catholic Near East Welfare Association was well acquainted with the challenging task he faced, having completed a fact-finding mission to Palestine the previous year on behalf of the American bishops.

The field headquarters of the Pontifical Mission was established in Beirut. Seven local committees involving the papal representatives, hierarchies, clergy, laity, and charitable agencies were organized for Arab Palestine (West Bank), Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Gaza.

Close collaboration with local churches and their leadership became the hallmark of the Pontifical Mission. Working with indigenous priests, brothers, sisters, and laity, it made resources available for humanitarian relief and development in the name of the Holy Father. Thousands of priests and religious volunteers of many nations came to work in these efforts.

As an agency representing the Holy Father, the Pontifical Mission has served as a conduit of resources from many of the Catholic charity organizations of Belgium, France, and Switzerland, which dispatched teams of workers, doctors, and nurses to help the refugees. The Pontifical Mission also functioned as the liaison of the Holy See with agencies of the United Nations and with other voluntary agencies working in the area, such as welfare organizations of the Eastern rites, the Knights and Ladies of the Holy Sepulchre, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the like.

In the years that followed, the Pontifical Mission not only distributed many tons of food, clothing, medical supplies and services, temporary shelters, and cooking equipment to the newly dispossessed, but it also constructed homes for those who had lost their own. To enable the refugees to help themselves, the agency endowed training and educational programs to teach skills for trades, literacy, and higher schooling. Tens of thousands of refugees found shelter in Catholic religious houses and properties.

Pope Paul gave new impetus and dimensions to the work of the Pontifical Mission, especially by his historic trip to Jordan and Israel in 1964. He had helped establish the mission when he was Pius XII’s special assistant directing the Church’s refugee relief efforts after the Second World War.

Paul VI recognized the challenges arising from the unresolved plights of Palestinians. He charted the vital course to establish “projects of aid, of rehabilitation, and of development for the population of Palestine.” He also called for promotion in the Catholic world of “an effective collaboration between all the relief organizations concerned with Palestine.”

The Pontifical Mission for Palestine has been able to respond to the evolving needs of the suffering peoples of the Holy Land. As violence and warfare spread to Lebanon, the Pontifical Mission has served the victimized population there. It plays a major role in the repair of damaged medical, educational, charitable, and religious institutions. It coordinates its efforts in close collaboration with such European agencies as Misereor, Missio, Kindermissionswerk, Kinderhilfe Bethlehem, Aid to the Church in Need, the Archdiocese of Cologne, and others.

All the while, the Pontifical Mission continues to respond to current needs of suffering people in the Middle East through its offices in Beirut, Amman, and Jerusalem. Since December of 1987, the beginning of the Palestinian intifadah, it has provided emergency medical supplies, medical equipment and personnel, agricultural supplies, and other assistance to needy families, schools, and communities.

Because of its modest administrative structure, its non-governmental nature, and the confidence it enjoys among local churches, the Pontifical Mission can act quickly and effectively to alleviate human suffering and provide aid for human development. It concentrates on meeting those needs that are either too limited to be addressed by larger agencies or that fall outside their funding guidelines.

Today, 40 years after its founding by Pope Pius XII, the Pontifical Mission still brings assistance to those in need while seeking a just resolution of the causes of the conflict in the Holy Land.

What the Pontifical Mission’s first president said decades ago remains the most succinct statement of this mission: “Misery did not discriminate among its victims in Palestine,” noted Msgr. McMahon. “Neither does the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.”

Brother David is special assistant to the Secretary General of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

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