The Pontifical Mission Societies include the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, the Holy Childhood Association, the Society of St. Peter Apostle, and the Missionary Union of Priests and Religious. These Societies promote a prayerful missionary spirit among baptized Catholics and to gather a fund of support for the evangelizing and pastoral programs of more than 1,150 local churches of the Developing World.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Return Visit

It brought to mind Hiroshima after the atomic bomb.
That was my first impression of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, when I visited there within months of the earthquake and tsunami of December 2004. Everything, everything had been destroyed, leveled. There was an occasional palm tree or a part of a shell of a building -- but little else.

Some 300,000 people perished in more than 10 countries from that tragic natural disaster; tens of thousands from Banda Aceh alone fled to Medan, some 600 kilometers away. In the three months preceding my March 2005 visit, there had been a lot of rubble and debris removed, but there was so much more yet to be taken away -- including a 150-foot long ship that was carried in by the tsunami waters and which literally pulverized homes in the area.

On that visit three years ago, I spent time with the local missionary priest, pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus, the only Catholic parish in Banda Aceh; the church and school buildings suffered heavy structural damages. Before the tsunami, there were 400 parishioners; when I was there just after that, there were but 50.

Providing for the future -- especially for the Church's service in this area -- clearly became a top priority. That parish, Sacred Heart, is the only Catholic Church presence in Banda Aceh. It became critically important that that presence be maintained.

The Pontifical Mission Societies established a Solidarity Fund for the Church in Southeast Asia, which included the Church in this part of Indonesia, immediately after the tsunami for long-term assistance. It is, in part, to review the good work accomplished by that Fund that I journey tomorrow to Indonesia. I make this return visit also to witness the good that contributions to the Pontifical Mission Societies accomplish in this part of the Developing World.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for reports from Indonesia during this mission visit.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A Day of Memories & Prayers

It happens every year -- a mix of memories and prayers.

I remember exactly where I was -- as I am sure so many Americans, especially New Yorkers do -- on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in my office waiting for the arrival of national board members of the Pontifical Mission Societies so that we could begin a morning meeting. A few minutes before the Mass we were to celebrate in our office, the first reports came in. They were sketchy at best, indicating a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings. After Mass was completed, we received word of the second plane; we were literally under siege.

First to consider was the safety of the 30-plus employees of our national office and of our Board members. Transportation eventually resumed, and they headed home. I also journeyed, on foot, to my own residence, at that time a parish very near Ground Zero.

It was on this walk home that the reality of what happened began to confront me. There was no traffic and no honking of horns in Manhattan, only military and police vehicles. Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, normally very crowded with traffic and people, were almost abandoned.

As I walked down Park Avenue, I encountered a group of police men and women, directing emergency vehicles. They approached me, some of them crying, and asked me to pray with them. We had what looked like a "huddle" in the street, each one trying to find understanding in what had happened and strength in moving ahead. One of them asked me, "Father, tell us something, make some sense of this for us. We can’t handle this." I don’t remember what I said or if I said anything, but my presence as a priest at that moment seemed to help them, and their faith seemed to strengthen me.

As I passed through many layers of security and as I got closer to my residence, I met many more fire officials, police, and military. A number of them approached and asked me to pray for them and for everyone lost at Ground Zero. In the days that followed, I would regularly visit local fire houses and offer prayers for firemen lost and missing.

On one evening, shortly after this tragedy, we had an outdoor prayer service at a local park. More than 300 people participated. We processed to several fire houses as part of this prayer service. At each one, we prayed in English, Spanish, and Chinese, and the firemen came out to join us. It was one of the most powerful community prayer experiences I have ever had.

This past September 11, 2008, I remembered that day seven years ago, as I do every year -- memories and prayers mixed together. At the Mass in our national office on this past Thursday, instead of preaching a homily, those who gathered for the Eucharist sat in silence for a few minutes. I am sure there were prayers for those who died that day, and for the families who still grieve and who still try to come to grips with that devastating loss. There were prayers as well for all who worked to save others on that dark day for New York and for our country. And, there was another prayer that I know I offered -- one for all the missionaries who today and every day try to bring the light of our Lord to the devastation of war and violence, of natural disaster and persecution, throughout the Developing World.