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On Fire for the Cause of Christ

by Brother Austin David Carroll, F.S.C.
photos: CNEWA Archives, Graymoor, NY


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When I picked up the 18 September issue of Newsweek, the striking headline, “Peace at Last?” expressed the thoughts of millions captivated by the signed accord between the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. When I thought further of the collapse of the Berlin wall and the demise of communism, I mused, “What a time to be alive!”

From 1943 to 1955, Monsignor Thomas J. McMahon, National Secretary of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, directed the Association through a similar period, one that witnessed the horrors of World War II, the division of Europe, the creation of the State of Israel and the ensuing Palestinian refugee crisis.

A passage from an April 1949 report from Msgr. McMahon to Francis Cardinal Spellman, then Archbishop of New York and President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, illustrates the frenetic pace of activity at that time:

…our money has been used for Russian refugees in Argentina, for the same in France, Germany, Holland, and even for Polish refugees in Iran, Lebanon and Egypt, for Ruthenians in Germany…food packages every month to Germany …Mass offerings for Ruthenian refugee priests…support of the Ruthenian refugee seminary in Holland…$100,000 grant for Ukrainian refugees in Germany…another grant to Palestinian relief…

A priest of the Archdiocese of New York, Msgr. McMahon was appointed assistant national secretary to Msgr. Bryan McEntegart in June 1943. In August 1943, Msgr. McEntegart was selected as Bishop of Ogdensburg, N.Y., and McMahon succeeded him as national secretary.

Five turbulent years later, one act by the United Nations on 29 November 1947 would have a significant impact on Catholic Near East Welfare Association and its erstwhile national secretary – the partition of Palestine.

After this partition, which created the State of Israel, McMahon traveled to the Holy Land under the instructions of Eugene Cardinal Tisserant, secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches. The monsignor intended to study the situation created by the establishment of Israel and the subsequent Arab rejection of the partition. Refugees swarmed the new state’s neighbors and Pope Pius XII was anxious about this new group of exiles. Palestine was the Holy Land, the “hometown” of Christianity. The pontiff was concerned about the status of the holy places; Muslim caliphs had brokered a delicate balance of power among the rival Christian groups in the Middle Ages. Would this change? Also, many of these new refugees were Christian Arabs. What would happen to the indigenous Christian communities in the land of Jesus’ birth?

Recommendations for action were sought by the Holy See – Rome valued the insight and judgment of McMahon, and his analysis and opinions were accepted and followed.

One of McMahon’s recommendations was to create a pontifical organization that would coordinate the church’s diverse efforts in the region on behalf of the Palestinian refugees.

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Tags: Refugees CNEWA Palestine Israel Holy Land