Speaking to Msgr. Peter Vaccari Monday, just a day after his return from Lebanon where he visited the port of Beirut so devastated in the powerful explosion that rocked the city and surrounding area a year ago, I learned he was trying to “find the silence” to bring to prayer and absorb all that he saw on his 10-day visit to the Middle East nation.
Msgr. Vaccari, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, became president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) 13 months ago. The recent trip to Lebanon was one of his first major international trips since the Covid-19 outbreak. In this space a year ago he had said his “greatest hope is to return to Beirut.”
He made good on that fervent desire. Of course, Msgr. Vaccari has stayed in touch with the 10-person staff of CNEWA’s Beirut office, with the benefits of Zoom technology, but he admitted that “the gap” that remained couldn’t be adequately captured in words.
The blast, which occurred after work hours, shattered windows in CNEWA’s office, and the damage was quickly repaired. Other sites toured by CNEWA’s New York delegation, which along with Msgr. Vaccari included Michael La Civita, the papal agency’s director of communications, and Noel Selegzi, director of development, sustained much more extensive damage.
As Msgr. Vaccari explained, CNEWA works best in collaboration with other agencies and groups to achieve its goals, as is certainly the case in Beirut. On Aug. 4, the first anniversary of the blast that killed more than 200 people and left 300,000 people homeless, the New Yorkers visited two hospitals CNEWA has assisted greatly in the months since.
One is Rosary Sisters Hospital, where they visited the namesake sisters and other medical staff at the hospital, which was greatly damaged in the blast. At Geitawi Hospital, they attended an inauguration ceremony designed in part to thank CNEWA “for what we were able to do.”
As Msgr. Vaccari explained, one of CNEWA’s biggest tools is its staff presence in Beirut, where 10 full-time staff members serve under local director Michel Constantin. The on-the-ground presence enabled it to begin working just a day or two after the blast.
CNEWA has a civil engineer on staff who worked with project directors at the two hospitals to review vendors and hire electricians and construction workers, and coordinated with other charitable agencies to help raise funds.
“For CNEWA to be most effective, we do that when we are collaborative,” Msgr. Vaccari said. “That was confirmed in this visit to Lebanon.”
Since taking over at CNEWA, Msgr. Vaccari said, his learning curve has been sharp after 30 years of ministry in seminary formation, including most recently as rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.
Msgr. Vaccari said two points he tried to consistently emphasize in meetings with religious dignitaries and on tours of hospitals, schools and homes affected by the blasts were “solidarity” in prayer and presence. Early in the visit, they traveled to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in the Harissa section of Beirut for Mass and a staff luncheon.
At each venue, Msgr. Vaccari said, they brought greetings and expressions of prayer and solidarity from Cardinal Dolan, who is chairman of CNEWA’s board of trustees.
The problems in Lebanon are complex, and the solutions won’t be easy. They are not limited to the aftereffects of the blast. As Msgr. Vaccari detailed, the turmoil began almost a year before the explosion and includes the collapse of the government, the collapse of the economy, and with it the financial, monetary and banking systems, the effects of Covid-19, fuel and power shortages, and the possibility of limited access to clean drinking water in the near future.
“Lebanon has undergone a tremendous time of suffering,” Msgr. Vaccari said.
Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, the Maronite patriarch, offered Mass at the port of Beirut Aug. 4 at the exact time of the blast a year earlier. Even with all the difficulties, the patriarch preached hope, calling on the international community and Lebanon’s own people to rally support for the Middle East nation. The New York delegation also met with Cardinal Rai for more than two hours.
“On the fourth of August a year ago, Jesus was on the cross with us,” Cardinal Rai said in his homily. “Today he calls us to the resurrection.”