By Linda Bordoni
Violence impacting the people of the Holy Land, the effects of the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the socio-political implosion in Lebanon and displacement caused by the Nagorno-Karabak war are among the criticalities examined by ROACO as it wraps up its 94th plenary meeting in Rome.
The “Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches” (ROACO) is the Holy See’s humanitarian arm for the Eastern Churches. Its committee includes several funding agencies that support the works, the churches and the peoples under the administration of the Congregation for Eastern Churches. Amongst them is the “Catholic Near East Welfare Association” (CNEWA), a pontifical foundation with headquarters in the US.
Representing CNEWA at the meeting together with its president, Monsignor Peter Vaccari, is the organization’s director of communications, Michael La Civita, who explained that the Pontifical mission works throughout the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe.
In an interview with Linda Bordoni, at the start of the plenary, La Civita said he arrived in Rome after spending two weeks in the Caucasus, specifically Armenia and Georgia, assessing the needs of the local churches and reviewing CNEWA’s projects with its partners there.
“I've just been back from Georgia,” he said pointing out that one of the issues he will bring to the discussions regard the Church there.
Although the Catholic Church there is quite small, he said, “the combination of religious communities. the local Ordinaries - be they Latin or Chaldean or Armenian Catholic - work together closely with the charity of the church which is Caritas.” He said this results in a fruitful collaboration that has given life to good partnerships between all the groups who manage to do a significant amount of work “throughout Georgia, throughout Armenia, reaching out to the most vulnerable, and right now that includes displaced persons from Nagorno-Karabakh.”
La Civita noted that the situation in the area is still unresolved and poses a great concern, first and foremost because of the humanitarian emergency, but also because “these are two countries in West Asia that are the first Christian nations” are of great importance “strategically and spiritually for the Holy See and for an organization like ours that was founded by the Holy See to work with the Eastern Churches.”
In ROACO’s spotlight is undoubtedly Ethiopia and its northern neighbour Eritrea, which is involved in a conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region that is “ripping apart the Christian heartland of that country.”
“We still don’t know how it is going to play out or what impact it will have on the Church there,” he said.
Impact of pandemic
La Civita also spoke about how the covid-19 pandemic has impacted everything: “our work, our programmes, many of which had to change to be relevant,” to the extent that “some of the programmes that we, as an organization had given funding to, no longer exist.”
But he stressed: “Even though the world shut down, the Church never shuts down, but faithfully lives the gospel.”
He passionately explained that all the churches CNEWA works with faithfully live the Gospel, and just as constantly, they are “doing and thinking, creating and responding.” In fact, he noted, they “respond” as opposed to “react” because so much of the work “has been pro-active, not reactive,” which means they were absolutely impacted by the pandemic on a programmatic side.
La Civita also acknowledged that the health crisis impacted the fundraising as well and CNEWA, like other aid organizations, “had to find creative ways to raise money, raise awareness, raise money to keep people abreast of what was happening in the rest of the world.”
“Because people were closed in their homes, we needed to feed them spiritually and emotionally, and also information-wise” through the website, emails and journalism.
He said that one channel CNEWA used was to put people in touch with Vatican News: “your stories were very important to feed our people, to keep them abreast,” and donors he said responded!
“Even though we had a pandemic and the economy was in tatters, we did much better than many charities. We did better than the year before, which is remarkable, especially considering that some dioceses in the United States dioceses were losing 20, 30 or even 40 per cent of their donations,” he said.
Pope Francis’ appeals for solidarity and awareness
Of course, La Civita continued, Pope Francis’s call for solidarity has made a huge impact on Catholics and non-Catholics as well.
“The wonderful thing about being Catholic is that we understand that the Catholic Church is Catholic with a big ‘C’ and catholic with a small ‘c’, which means we are not only concerned about our local community but about the Church universal. So we have a tradition of being concerned about the missions and for being attentive for the church in need around the world,” he said.
He also highlights how the Pope’s appeals provide people with many ways to respond, including prayer: “That is the most important thing, the foundation of what we do, always calling to mind the presence of God amongst us and the need to pray for ourselves and for others. And it does move mountains.”
The arms of mother Church
Asked what expectations he has following the plenary, La Civita chose to respond with a metaphor: “These meetings reminds of Bernini’s colonnade, the wonderful arms of the mother Church embracing us all and bringing us together. That is what happens with ROACO.”
He described the organization as being made up of people from all over the world, people who share common concerns and challenges, being partners in so many ways to assist the peoples and churches served by the Congregation.
“So I come away always impressed by the catholic nature of what we do,” he said, somehow strengthening the relationships that grow stronger over the years.
Asked if there was anything else, in particular, he wanted to focus on, La Civita said: “yes, Lebanon!”
On 1 July, he recalled, Heads of the churches in Lebanon will gather in the Vatican to pray for a country that some see as the last foothold of Christianity in the Middle East.
Historically, he said, Lebanon has been a land of refuge, not just for Christians, but for all sorts of minorities in the region, and right now with its socio-economic implosion, concerns have grown also for the presence of Christians. This continuing downfall, he said could be the “coup de grace.”
“I would want to call attention to meeting on the 1st of July to ask people to please pray, to join the Holy Father and the various heads of those churches to join in prayer and ask our Lady of Lebanon to intercede on our behalf and hopefully mountains can be moved with that prayer, with that solidarity, and it will benefit not just Christians of the Middle East but the entire Middle East.