Pontifical Mission for Palestine: An Expression of Papal Concern

Born out of war and displacement the Pontifical Mission for Palestine brought relief and hope to people in need throughout the Middle East for 50 years.

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Quietly but effectively, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine has profoundly changed the lives of generations of people in the Middle East.

What Pope Pius XII established in 1949 as a temporary agency of the Holy See to feed, clothe and educate Palestinian refugees has become a permanent expression of the Popes concern for the well-being of Christians and Muslims, Palestinians, Jordanians, Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians. “Need not creed” is the fundamental criterion guiding the work of the Pontifical Mission.

What led to the creation of this papal initiative occurred in November 1947 when the United Nations voted to partition British-mandated Palestine into two independent states, Arab and Jewish, and to place Jerusalem under international jurisdiction. The departure of British troops from Palestine in May 1948, the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent war between the Arabs and Israel then provoked a massive refugee crisis.

Overnight almost a million Palestinians fled their homes – now in the state of Israel – for Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Some were driven from their homes; others believed they were leaving temporarily on the assumption that the Arabs military strength surpassed that of the Israelis.

In his 1948 encyclical letter, In multiplicibus curis, Pope Pius XII expressed his sorrow for the situation: “in the land in which our Lord Jesus Christ shed his blood… the blood of man continues to flow…men continue to fight and to increase the distress of the unfortunate and the fear of the terrorized, while thousands of refugees, homeless and driven, wander from their fatherland in search of shelter and food.”

From the start of the crisis, the Pontiff sent emergency relief to refugees through his regional delegates. He also blessed relief efforts such as the one sponsored in the autumn of 1948 by the United States Catholic bishops and led by Msgr. Thomas J. McMahon, National Secretary of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA).

“Every day of those four months among the Palestinian refugees was filled with sorrowful thoughts and even more sorrowful sights,” Msgr. McMahon wrote years later. “From the day we landed at Haifa and began our trek through mud and snow in Israel, Arab Palestine, East Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, our pilgrims progress was beset with tears. Twelve years before we had accomplished the same journey, but then it was a holy pilgrimage to the sacred shrines…. Yesteryear we had gone among a happy and contented people. Now we found them herded together in terror.

“During those months at the close of 1948 and the beginning of 1949,” Msgr. McMahon concluded, “as I helped the bishops and a thousand priests and sisters for the relief of the Middle East, I could see the absolute need for a special Pontifical Mission for Palestine, coordinating the efforts of the whole Catholic world…. This had been the idea of the Holy Father and all those around him.”

One of those around the Pope was Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, who had organized and directed Pius XIIs refugee relief efforts during World War II. At a November 1948 meeting, during which the idea of a papal mission to Palestine was discussed, Msgr. Montini penciled the name of McMahon as the candidate to lead such an agency.

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Tags: Middle East Palestine War Pope Pius XII