NEW YORK — When Michael La Civita of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association considers how the agency prioritizes where to send aid, he says the best way to describe it is like a “triage,” given the crises so many countries face.
When it comes to the Holy Land — what he considers essentially the Middle East — the socioeconomic and political implosion of Lebanon; a tourism industry decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel, Palestine and Jordan; and the plight of Christians in Iraq are just some of the problems that exist.
“Right now, everything is a crisis,” La Civita, the agency’s communications director told The Tablet. “Depending on the country none of the news is good. It just probably goes from bad to worse depending on where you look. All of those areas are of concern to us and are our priorities.”
CNEWA is an agency of the Holy See that serves the people and churches of the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe. Its services include lay catechist formation programs, pastoral and child care initiatives, special needs institutions for adults, emergency relief and health care programs.
The agency also partners with the Vatican’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect for the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, recently wrote a letter urging Catholics around the world to support its annual Holy Land Collection on Good Friday.
As prefect, Cardinal Sandri oversees the annual Good Friday Collection alongside the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land. Its benefactors include Jerusalem, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Turkey, Iran and Iraq.
The cardinal references the isolation, loss of work and persistence of war and sanctions compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. And notes the fact the annual collection fell short last year because much of the world was under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
“May this year collection pro Terra Sancta be an opportunity for everyone not to ignore the difficult situation of our brothers and sisters of the Holy Places but rather to lighten their burdens,” Cardinal Sandri wrote. “If this small gesture of solidarity and sharing fails, it will be even more difficult for many of them to resist the temptation to leave their country, more demanding to support the parishes in their pastoral and educational work and harder to sustain the social commitment to the poor and suffering.”
For CNEWA, La Civita said the agency actually held its own in comparison to 2019, when its total revenue was $26,275,011, according to its financial report. Official numbers for 2020 aren’t yet available.
The saving grace, La Civita said, was adapting to an online business model that has become commonplace in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of methods like direct mail, advertising and working with major donors, the agency focused on highlighting the stories and hardships people faced around the world.
“We found that people needed to be fed. It wasn’t constantly asking people for money, but just providing Catholics, or those interested in the work of the Church, with stories from across the world that helped people gain some perspective on what was happening in real life, in real time,” La Civita told The Tablet.
“I think and feel that those efforts to connect with people in a very personal way […] it motivated and inspired people and people responded in kind. Sometimes without really being prompted or asked.”
La Civita said Pope Francis’ recent trip to Iraq served as another boost of donations stateside “because they see the value of what the church is doing.”
The method continues more than a year later. The steady diet of blog posts, magazine material and emails has increased throughout the pandemic. And again, that revenue is essential to provide aid and relief to Christians in need worldwide.
La Civita said the chief priority right now is the Church in northern Ethiopia. Specifically, Tigray, which is a historic center of the Ethiopian Catholic Church. Educational institutions, clinics and social service programs for the handicapped have all been negatively impacted by the country’s interethnic conflict, displacement of people, refugee crisis and now the pandemic, he said.
Next, La Civita identified supporting hospitals and religious institutions, particularly schools, in Lebanon as a priority identified by the Holy See. Followed by the plight of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. And the providing for marginalized and vulnerable — elderly and homeless children — in Armenia and Georgia.
Not to mention the aforementioned hardships faced in countries like Iraq, Palestine and Israel.
He said it’s prayer and realistic expectations that allows the agency to make sound decisions and provide these countries with what they need.
“Please keep these churches, these peoples in your thoughts and most importantly in your prayers. Without prayers, we can’t do a thing,” La Civita said. “The other thing is maintaining realistic expectations. We try not to raise high expectations for people but are constantly present to them and finding ways to meet their needs as best as we can.”