A Catholic organisation has celebrated 90 years of quiet service to the poor in the Middle East, northeast Africa, India and eastern Europe.
Mgr John Kozar, secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare
Association, said the agency maintains a low profile because it works
through and with the local Church.
“They know best how to represent the face of Christ. We trust their
experience, holiness and knowledge about how to govern and care for
their people,” he said in an interview with Catholic News Service (CNS).
The mission of the organisation is to serve and accompany Eastern
Catholic churches in pastoral and humanitarian activities, generally at
the level of the diocese or eparchy, Mgr Kozar said.
A secondary mission
is to share the needs of the Eastern churches with people in North
America who may be confused about where Eastern churches fit in the
larger Catholic picture.
Eastern Catholic churches have their origins in the Middle East,
Eastern Europe, India or northeast Africa, have distinctive liturgical
and legal systems, and are often identified by the national or ethnic
character of their region of origin. Members of the 22 Eastern Catholic
churches enjoy the same dignity, rights and obligations as members of
the Latin Church.
Msgr Kozar said people in North America have little exposure to
Eastern churches and he takes it in stride when asked if Eastern
Catholics are “really Catholic” and if they are under the authority of
Pope Francis. “I say, ‘Yes! We are one church with two very enriching
traditions, Latin and Eastern.'”
He said Eastern Catholic churches are typically smaller than Latin
churches. Many have deep historic roots and are in areas of suffering
and religious persecution.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association was founded in 1926 in
response to a request by Pope Pius XI to unite all American Catholic
organisations providing aid to Russia and the Near East. Near East is an
imprecise geographic term that encompasses southwest Asia and the
As a papal organisation, it has a mandate from the Vatican to support
the Eastern Catholic Church. Another mandate of the agency is to work
for union among Catholic and non-Catholic Eastern churches, including
the Orthodox churches.
In recent years, the association spent approximately $22 million annually on assistance in 14 countries.
The abiding challenge is with refugees and displaced persons in the
Middle East, especially Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, Mgr Kozar said.
Access in Syria has been sharply limited because of the ongoing
conflict, but the organisation is still helping the local churches
provide milk, bedding, diapers and antibiotics to their people.
“There are heroic priests, Sisters and bishops who never left. Some
Catholics and other Christians have been hunkered down for more than
five years,” he said.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association also is active in areas where
the Church has experienced persecution, such as Egypt. In one town, the
agency funded the repair of a section of a burned-out orphanage so the
Sisters living there could continue to care for 15 children.
orphanage was one of 55 church properties damaged in anti-Christian
violence during 2013.
The agency also supports school feeding programmes for children in
drought-affected parts of the horn of Africa. It serves some of the
million families displaced in Ukraine as a result of fighting along the
border with Russia.
In India, the agency supports evangelisation in the remote tribal
areas in the northern part of the country. “It’s very uplifting how
people have a yearning to have a different experience of God or to
experience him for the first time,” said Mgr Kozar, who has visited the
area several times.
“It’s the most basic form of evangelisation,” he said. “Priests and
sisters live in villages with indigenous peoples and share their prayer
life in a very basic way.”
The two Eastern Catholic churches in India are the Syro-Malabar and
Syro-Malankara, which trace their origins to St Thomas the Apostle.
Pope Francis is expected to travel to India this year, possibly in
November. Mgr Kozar said the visit will give hope to the people and
encourage them to continue their many good works of charity and service.
He said Catholics comprise only 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent of the
population. “The Catholic Church contributes tremendously to the
education environment, medical care and social services,
disproportionate to our numbers,” he said.
Catholic Near East Welfare Association works to empower Eastern
Catholic churches through education and formation of religious, clergy
and communities, according to Michael La Civita, the agency’s
“We’re not teaching them how to be a church. We’re providing
resources and sometimes know-how to build more responsive and holy
churches,” he told CNS. “They start with a foundation and it has to be
sustainable, so we have to be invisible.”
“These are churches rooted in the time of Jesus and the apostles, and
filled with men and women doing great things,” he said. Instead of
falling into despair because of extraordinary challenges in the current
day, “they are motivated by the Gospel to do something to change the
situation,” he said.
Although the organisation’s efforts are “for, through and with” the
Eastern Catholic churches, La Civita said humanitarian aid is provided
to all as a witness to the Gospel. “This requires us to be in dialogue
of other communities of faith,” he said.
La Civita said the agency’s accompaniment extends to Orthodox and
other Christian and non-Christian traditions. It also participates in
national and local Catholic dialogues with Muslims, Jews and Orthodox.
As Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan serves as the agency’s chairman.
“In this role I have visited a number of Eastern churches in some
very challenging areas of the world,” he said in response to a question
“This papal agency is focused on, as Pope Francis would say,
accompaniment – reaching out in a pastoral way to demonstrate solidarity
of the Holy Father and the Church universal with these local churches
that suffer greatly, and are even persecuted,” the cardinal said. “Our
message is clear and simple: You are not alone. We are here, and we love