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CNEWA at 75: The Beginning

Moved by the horrific consequences of the Great War, the popes responded, establishing a human development agency committed to service.

text by Peg Maron
photographs: CNEWA Archives


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Europe at the end of World War I was a continent in turmoil. The Allied nations, led by Great Britain, France and the United States, had defeated the Central Powers – Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Germany and Turkey.

After almost 600 years of uninterrupted rule, the Ottoman Empire had crumbled, its former territories up for grabs. More than a million Greeks sought refuge in Istanbul. Armenians, Assyrians and Chaldeans, faced with violence and death, fled their homelands. Rent by revolution, Russia was absorbed in civil war and famine. Refugees abounded, fleeing first to Istanbul, later to Berlin, Paris and Vienna.

Two successive popes sought to alleviate this suffering. Both were committed to bringing material and spiritual relief to the people of Europe and the Near East. During his brief pontificate (1914-1922), Pope Benedict XV personally directed the organization of Vatican relief agencies. Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) continued his predecessor’s work, which led ultimately to the establishment of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in 1926.

Both popes demonstrated an active interest in the Eastern churches, an interest that would impact eventually on the work of CNEWA. On 1 May 1917, Pope Benedict announced the establishment of the Sacred Congregation for the Eastern Church, to be headed by the pope as prefect. A few months later he established the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome.

Pope Pius had gained extensive firsthand knowledge of the Eastern churches in the years 1919 to 1921, when he served as papal nuncio to Poland. At that time, his mission extended to part of the former Tsarist Empire: Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. In the sixth year of his pontificate, on 8 September 1928, he published his encyclical concerning the Eastern Catholic churches, Rerum orientalium. The following year he began the codification of Eastern Church law.

Americans responded wholeheartedly to the Holy See’s appeals for aid, especially for the relief of famine victims in Russia between 1921 and 1923. Various American agencies were organized to assist the needy in Russia and in the Near Eastern lands once governed by the Ottoman Turks

In Istanbul, Bishop George Calavassy, Greek Catholic Exarch of Constantinople, sought to solve the refugee crisis there. He planned to establish an orphanage, a seminary, two schools and a church. Circum-stances later forced him to move these projects to Athens.

The Bishop’s appeals for aid went largely unanswered until Father Paul Wattson, S.A., founder of the Society of the Atonement at Graymoor, New York, exhorted readers of his monthly publication, The Lamp, to support the Bishop’s efforts. The Greek Catholic Exarch and Father Wattson shared an ecumenical outlook: Bishop Calavassy was driven by the desire to unite the Orthodox and Catholic churches; Father Wattson, a former Anglican priest, sought the reunion of the Anglican and Protestant churches with Rome.

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Tags: CNEWA Eastern Christianity Pope Funding