Pontifical Mission at 50

Msgr. Robert Stern reflects on the reason for the observance of the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

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“Holy Father, you should know that they are all fiercely proud of working for you and overjoyed to be here with you,” I said to Pope John Paul II after he had greeted the last member of our Pontifical Mission staff.

I was standing next to the Pope in the Consistorial Hall of the Apostolic Palace and had just presented to him by name each staff member from our Amman, Beirut, Jerusalem and Vatican City offices and 22 staff members from the joint New York headquarters of the Pontifical Mission and CNEWA.

Why me? Besides being CNEWA’s Secretary General, I am also President of the Pontifical Mission – originally the Pontifical Mission for Palestine and now the Holy See’s relief and development agency for the entire Middle East.

We were in Rome to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pontifical Mission’s establishment and 50 years of its good work. The day had begun with a solemn Mass of Thanksgiving offered by Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Amid the violence and bloodshed that followed the United Nations’ partition of Palestine, the Pontifical Mission was conceived as an instrumentality of the love and concern of the Holy Father and of the whole Catholic world for the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and refugees.

At its start in June 1949, the Pontifical Mission coordinated the relief efforts of the local and international churches in Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Arab Palestine, Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The early years saw the provision of emergency shelter and distribution of food, clothing and medicine to the refugees. As no resolution to their plight appeared, the Mission provided institutional services such as schools, clinics and homes for the handicapped, the orphaned, the aged and the infirm.

With the Israeli occupation of the rest of Palestine in 1967, the Pontifical Mission began to respond to the needs of an entire civilian population living under martial law and without normal social institutions. It also had to face a new refugee crisis and emergency needs in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

The woes of the Middle East continued. With the increase of civil strife in Lebanon, our beneficiaries were no longer just Palestinian but Lebanese as well.

The start of the intifada in 1987 offered new challenges for our work in the Holy Land. Now the Pontifical Mission aided grassroots organizations, providing medical assistance, agricultural aid, legal advocacy and other vital services to the Palestinian people.

The 1991 Gulf War brought waves of Iraqi refugees to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Again, the love and concern of the Holy Father reached out to them through the Mission’s work.

Would that after 50 years there were no need for a special relief and development agency of the Holy See. Alas, its services are still needed and continue – through the generosity of the donors of CNEWA; the Swiss-German Kinderhilfe Bethlehem; Kindermissionswerk, Misereor, Missio, and the Archdiocese of Cologne in Germany; and other Catholic agencies throughout the world.

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Tags: CNEWA Middle East Msgr. Stern Pope John Paul II