In the three weeks since the devastating explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, which leveled entire sections of the city, officials of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) here in their headquarters at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan have been in close contact with colleagues there.
Last Friday, Msgr. Peter Vaccari, the president of CNEWA, spoke with me shortly after concluding the most recent Zoom meeting with employees in the Beirut office, which sustained damage to its façade and many broken windows in the massive blast. Fortunately, no CNEWA employees were injured in the explosion, which took place shortly after the office closed for the day Aug. 4.
More than 100 people were killed and thousands more were injured in the explosion.
Following the blast, Lebanon has been reeling with damage to infrastructure and buildings which adds to widespread unemployment and food shortages as well as the recent resignation of the members of the government’s cabinet that have left many in the Middle Eastern country in a state of despair.
“Many people have been traumatized,” Msgr. Vaccari said. “It’s one thing after another.”
Msgr. Vaccari, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn who was rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie before being appointed to head CNEWA, traveled to Beirut in February, his first official trip representing CNEWA. “Lebanon was already in a crisis” at the time, one exacerbated shortly thereafter by the coronavirus and more recently by the explosion this month.
A great source of CNEWA’s strength in Lebanon, Msgr. Vaccari says, is that the agency’s staff has been on the ground there since 1949 and is intimately familiar with the humanitarian and pastoral needs of the people in their midst. The office in Beirut is responsible for the papal agency’s operations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.
According to reports from CNEWA employees in Beirut, Msgr. Vaccari said, “The basic, most fundamental need for Lebanon…is to have some glimpse of hope.”
In Beirut, local Catholic hospitals, schools and churches and houses operated by the Daughters of Charity sustained significant damage in the blast; one religious sister was killed.
CNEWA, working with other partners, is trying to assist with necessary repairs to stabilize and secure properties, as well as assisting in the distribution of food.
“We’re trying to make sure that these places…can be rendered safe,” Msgr. Vaccari said.
CNEWA works cooperatively with the papal nuncio in Lebanon, as well as committees of the Maronite Patriarch, bishops and regional Eastern eparchs.
CNEWA also recently embarked on a campaign of emergency assistance to rally prayers and collect funds for Lebanon, “to help our people do their work on the ground,” Msgr. Vaccari said. Even though the United States has been battling its own problems related to Covid-19 and high unemployment, the initial response from donors has been “very good,” he said.
To make a donation: 800-442-6392 or visit https://cnewa.org/campaigns/lebanoncrisis/
Cardinal Dolan, as board chairman and treasurer of CNEWA, has been in regular contact with Msgr. Vaccari to express his “support and interest” for the Lebanese people as they cope with the widespread damage in Beirut while still dealing with the ramifications of Covid-19 and mounting unrest.
For now, travel restrictions associated with the coronavirus have prevented Msgr. Vaccari from personally visiting Lebanon or other countries that CNEWA serves.
Once those restrictions are removed, “my greatest hope is to return to Beirut,” he said. “I would love at the first opportunity to return to give support, particularly to our offices in Beirut.”
For now, Msgr. Vaccari remains in New York, where he is maintaining “solid communication” with CNEWA teams in various parts of the globe, and expressing prayerful solidarity and the financial commitment of donors.
The Zoom calls with Beirut commence with prayers led by the CNEWA staff under director Michel Constantin, including many personal prayers focused on their efforts on behalf of the people they are helping, “a beautiful tribute to their heroic service,” Msgr. Vaccari said.
Meanwhile in New York this week, Cardinal Dolan and Msgr. Vaccari were expected to join in a prayer service at Our Lady of Lebanon Cathedral in Brooklyn, led by Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour, on Tuesday evening, Aug. 25.