Rarely does the work of the church just stop. In those parts of the world served by Catholic Near East Welfare Association — the Middle East, northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe — the churches have always found ways to circumvent the instability, the violence, the lack of resources, even persecution, to live the Gospel. From Gaza to Syria, religious houses have opened their doors to offer safety during times of war. Parish communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel have received refugees and migrants, offering comfort, food, childcare and work. Men and women with Catholic social services in Iraq and the West Bank have healed the sick, consoled the distraught, and taught those eager to learn. The ministries are many, and vary in their approach, but all are inspired by Jesus.
Then suddenly, last March, everything came to a sudden halt:
“The coronavirus pandemic swept through, closing worldwide everything in its wake: commerce, business, government, religious acts — life!” wrote CNEWA’s president, Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari. “For a moment, everything paused, and stood at a standstill. Our world suddenly and eerily went quiet, and dark. CNEWA, too, reflected this sudden turn of events. It was a sad day when we locked the doors to our New York offices. It was sadder when we heard of the many good works of the churches we are privileged to serve shuttering their doors.”
“For the first time an invisible enemy has totally stopped the life of the church; any form of pastoral care and sacramental activity has been suspended,” reported Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa of Jerusalem on the life of the church in the Holy Land.
For nearly a century, this agency of the Holy See has worked nonstop in its assistance to the Eastern churches and the people they serve, and then one day in March, it seemed to end.
Our shock in New York did not last long. We began to receive word from our friends, colleagues and partners on the ground that, despite the ravages of COVID-19, the closures, the lockdowns and the quarantines, the work of the church continued. Christians and non-Christians alike turned to the church in their need, looking for masks, sanitizers and soap, a hot meal or medical care, or just warm words of comfort. And throughout CNEWA’s world, driven by their zeal for the Gospel, religious sisters, lay men and women, priests and bishops responded in love. Despite the risks, they did what they could, often with meager resources.
(These “foot soldiers of Christ” then turned to the CNEWA family to share their stories and seek help. See more in CNEWA’s One magazine)
What we have learned is that the coronavirus does not discriminate — it affects all regardless of race, religion or national identity — but its impact on the most vulnerable, the elderly and the poor, is perhaps most severe. Pope Francis reminded us of this during his Easter Urbi et Orbi:
This is not a time for indifference, because the whole world is suffering and needs to be united in facing the pandemic. May the risen Jesus grant hope to all the poor, to those living on the peripheries, to refugees and the homeless. May these, the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters living in the cities and peripheries of every part of the world, not be abandoned.
The pope quickly established a worldwide emergency relief campaign. In solidarity, CNEWA launched its own to help address the urgent needs of those we serve, coordinating our efforts with the Congregation for Eastern Churches, apostolic nuncios, local church superiors, and religious and lay leaders. We focused on families living in poverty, children and the elderly, as well as people with special needs, refugees and the displaced.
“I have children, but it is only me. With the coronavirus everything grew harder,” said one African migrant in Israel, who participates in a cooperative operated by the church in Tel Aviv that has received COVID relief from CNEWA. “My children are little; if they see me crying, that is not good. All the time I pray to God. I thank God for the work I have making masks.”
CNEWA’s founding was the fruit of many singular Catholic efforts after World War I to address the displacement of peoples in the lands of the ancient Eastern churches: Armenians, Assyro-Chaldeans and Greeks from the former Ottoman Empire; and former subjects of the tsar dispersed by war, revolution and famine.
Led by an English priest, Msgr. Richard Barry-Doyle, one initiative in particular raised awareness, funds and eyebrows throughout the United States. Msgr. Barry-Doyle’s “Call of the East” packed music halls and theaters. Later incorporated in Pennsylvania as The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, the new outfit sought to raise funds to help address the many needs of the endangered Eastern churches and the people they served.
By 1926, the pope recognized the value of Msgr. Barry-Doyle’s association and its work, re-founding it and placing it under the supervision of the archbishop of New York at the service of the Holy See’s Congregation for Eastern Churches. Although Msgr. Barry-Doyle returned to Britain, his work continued and prospered, as CNEWA opened regional offices in Beirut, Jerusalem and Amman, later in Addis Ababa, Asmara and Ernakulam, and lastly a national office in Ottawa. Modern tools of communication have connected tightly these outposts of goodwill, bound by an operational mandate to “always act as if the church is one, unless you are forced to encounter a difference.”
Now, nearly a century since CNEWA’s creation, the challenges threatening the ancient Eastern churches loom larger still. The 4 August 2020 explosion in the port of Beirut ripped open a huge hole in the heart of the Christian community in Lebanon, and throughout the greater Holy Land. As it destroyed Christian hospitals, convents, rectories and schools — killing hundreds and leaving more than 300,000 people homeless — it revealed to the world the collapsing state of affairs in the last nation state in the region where Christians maintain a foothold.
That foothold is eroding, rapidly.
As more Christians leave the greater Holy Land for the security, stability and economic promise of the West, the weakening of the Christian community, from Palestine to Iraq, Syria to Jordan, would be a huge loss for the region and, indeed, the world. The many works of the churches in projects of development, schools, universities, hospitals and other social services, particularly in Lebanon, “have created and nourished a vibrant culture of openness, freedom and democracy,” said Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. “That is why Lebanon has been considered as the university, the hospital and the bank of the modern Middle East.”
Without these ministries, without the men and women behind them, who will testify to the love and healing power of the Gospel?