31 May 2016
Pope Pius XI, CNEWA’s founder, was born 159 years ago today. (photo: CNEWA)
The man we know as Pope Pius XI — Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti — was born on this date, 31 May, in 1857.
From 1919 to 1921, he served as papal nuncio to Poland, where he gained extensive firsthand knowledge of the Eastern churches —knowledge that would later help guide one of his most important moves: establishing the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in 1926.
Elected pope in 1922, he witnessed some pivotal moments of 20th century history, including the rise of Mussolini, the signing of the Lateran Treaty (which created an independent Vatican City state) and the growing threat of totalitarianism. Encyclopedia Britannica notes:
Pius XI, a student of Hebrew, was responsible for the three major encyclicals against the totalitarian systems that challenged Christian principles: “Non Abbiamo Bisogno” (1931; [We Do Not Need to Acquaint You]) against the abuses of Fascist Italy; “Mit Brennender Sorge” (1937; “With Deep Anxiety”) against Nazi Germany, and “Divini Redemptoris” (1937; “Divine Redeemer”) against the ends of atheistic communism. Under his leadership the Vatican challenged the extreme nationalism of Action Français in France and the anti-Semitism of the Reverend Coughlin in the United States.
But for us at CNEWA, a critical decision he made 90 years ago would leave an indelible mark and launch a new era:
On 13 March, Pope Pius XI merged The Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Catholic Union into a new pontifical association with Father Walsh as its President. Catholic Near East Welfare Association was retained as the name of this new pontifical organization. The Board of Trustees agreed to continue to use the original civil charter.
The new CNEWA incorporated the purposes of both groups, including emergency relief in Asia Minor, the Balkans, Greece and Russia; religious welfare; education and the needs of the Eastern Catholic churches.
On 15 September 1926, the American Catholic bishops formally endorsed the new organization at their meeting in Washington, D.C., and named CNEWA as the sole instrumentality authorized to solicit funds for Catholic interests in Russia and the Near East.
His commitment to missions was total:
Surpassing his predecessors in support of overseas missions, he required every religious order to engage actively in this work, with the result that missionaries doubled their number during his pontificate. Most significant was his consecration of the first Chinese bishops, in 1926. He equally encouraged historians and liturgiologists to study Eastern Christianity, inaugurating the work of codifying Eastern canon law. In 1930 he witnessed the reunion of the Syro-Melankarese Christians (of southern India) with Rome.
Pope Pius XI died in 1939, but one of his enduring legacies remains the ongoing work of CNEWA around the world. He helped clarify and define the Catholic Church’s teaching on social justice, and made concern for one another a cornerstone of that teaching. As he wrote in his encyclical “Divini Redemptoris”: “It is the essence of social justice to demand from each individual all that is necessary for the common good.”
May he rest in peace.
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