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A Rascal for God

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

“Thanks be to God I’m back safe. I never thought I’d make it out alive.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Well, the last week I was in Saudi Arabia, two friends invited me to go with them on a trip into the Dead Zone, the great desert in the south. We were traveling by camel with two Bedouin guides. The second day into the desert, they couldn’t find the oasis where we had planned to spend the night. One of the guides went searching for it, but never returned. We kept going the next day, until we ran out of water.”

I was hooked. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what would come next.

Dramatically, he continued: “That night the other guide vanished while we slept. My friends started to panic, but I told them not to worry. The next night the camels collapsed and died of thirst.…”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “camels don’t die of thirst after three days.”

I suddenly realized that I had fallen for it again. Once more my boss, Msgr. (later, Bishop) John G. Nolan, had spun out a tale, plausible at first and then increasingly so far fetched that it didn’t seem that it could be true – at least, not entirely true.

Msgr. Nolan had a fantastic imagination. He also had a fantastic memory. He worked for Catholic Near East Welfare Association for 25 years, and he could remember just about everything that had happened during that quarter of a century.

He joined the organization as head of its Beirut office. In those days, Beirut was a beautiful city and a hub of commerce and activity for all the Middle East.

His warm and engaging personality made many friends there, most of whom were close to him for the rest of his life.

Within two years, he came back to New York to assist Msgr. (later, Archbishop) Joseph T. Ryan, then CNEWA’s National Secretary and President of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. In 1966, Msgr. Nolan took over these responsibilities and exercised them for 21 years.

His heart was always in the Holy Land. As did his predecessors, he spent every Christmas there. He always shared in the ceremony and splendor of Midnight Mass in Bethlehem. Then, Christmas morning, he would go to the Pontifical Mission Girls’ Orphanage and offer Mass for them. After, with the children gathered around him, the celebrant would become Santa Claus, giving each of them her gift.

“This is my parish,” he would say with deep feeling. “This is my family.”

The needy child sponsorship program that Msgr. Nolan started helped not only those little girls in Bethlehem, but tens of thousands of children all over the world.

Wherever he went, whomever he was with, he would spin them a fascinating tale, but end up asking them to sponsor a child. His imagination was so great that he always imagined others would respond with the same love he had.

At Bishop Nolan’s funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, when all the tributes were paid and prayers said, his former boss and good friend, John Cardinal O’Connor, fondly reminded the congregation that, besides everything else, John Nolan was a rascal!

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA



Tags: CNEWA Msgr. Stern Msgr. John G. Nolan