ROME — International solidarity in funding the rebuilding of schools, hospitals and churches destroyed by war is important, Pope Francis said, but “we need to be concerned above all for the living stones who have been wounded and dispersed.”
From Georgia south through Iraq and Syria, then from the Holy Land through North Africa to the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the needs of Christian communities are pressing, Pope Francis said June 24 as he met with representatives of a Vatican coalition of funding agencies, known by its Italian acronym, ROACO.
Coordinated by the Congregation for Eastern Churches, ROACO assists Eastern-rite churches around the world as well as the Latin-rite church in North Africa and the Middle East. The agencies include the U.S.-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Catholic Relief Services, as well as Aid to the Church in Need, Caritas Internationalis and Catholic charities in Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands.
Through the representatives, Pope Francis extended his “gratitude to all those who support and make possible your projects: ordinary members of the faithful, families, parishes and volunteers who understand what it means to be ‘brothers and sisters all’ and who devote a portion of their time and resources to assisting you in the services you provide.”
“I have been told that the income from the 2020 collection for the Holy Land was only about half of that received in previous years,” the pope said. The collection, usually taken on Good Friday, was moved to September in 2020 because most countries were under a mandatory COVID-19 lockdown, including prohibitions or severe limits on church services.
Pope Francis said he knew that restrictions on Mass attendance as well as “the economic crisis generated by the pandemic” explain the drop in donations.
However, he said, “while the crisis may have encouraged us to focus on what is essential, we cannot remain indifferent when we think of the deserted streets of Jerusalem and the loss of those pilgrims who go there to strengthen their faith, but also to express concrete solidarity with the local churches and their people.”
He urged Catholics to understand the importance of their giving.
Christians in the Holy Land have experienced hardship over the past year not only because of the pandemic, but also because of renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians, “peoples who we hope and pray will see the bow of peace that God showed to Noah as a sign of the covenant between heaven and earth, and of peace among peoples.”
“All too often, even lately, those skies have been darkened by missiles bringing destruction, death and fear,” the pope said.
“The pleas for help rising from Syria are never far from God’s heart, yet do not seem to have touched the hearts of leaders in a position to affect the destiny of peoples,” he said. After 10 years of conflict and millions of people displaced or forced to migrate, the victims and the need for reconstruction are “all held hostage to partisan thinking and the lack of courageous decisions for the good of that war-torn nation.”
Pope Francis also expressed his “apprehension” over the continuing violence in Tigray, where the Ethiopian army and its allies are reportedly committing massacres, raping women, destroying churches and mosques and using famine as a tool to put down any civilian support for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
In discussing needs for funding at ROACO’s annual meeting June 21-24, the agencies’ representatives heard from: Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin patriarch of Jerusalem; Archbishop Antoine Camilleri, nuncio to Ethiopia; Archbishop José Bettencourt, nuncio to Georgia and Armenia; Cardinal Mario Zenari, nuncio to Syria; Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, nuncio to Lebanon; and Archbishop Mitja Leskovar, nuncio to Iraq.