May 13, 2009

Interesting Connection...

While driving to work this morning, I heard some news on the radio about the Pope's visit to the Holy Land. According to one of the Internet news sites, "Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Jesus' traditional birthplace for a one-day visit Palestinians hope will draw attention to their suffering under Israeli military rule. The pontiff's motorcade drove through a crossing in Israel's towering West Bank separation barrier Wednesday to reach the cradle of Christianity. He was greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.  Later, he is to tour the Church of the Nativity, and will visit a Palestinian refugee camp."

It reminded me how long some Palestinians have been in those camps. The reason I am aware of this has a very interesting connection.

In about 1951, my home church, St. John the Evangelist, got a parish administrator, Father Arnold J. English. The Pastor, Monsignor John J. Finn, had become somewhat senile, but was loved by many parishioners. Because of his popularity and immense political influence in Schenectady, the Bishop saw fit to send an Administrator rather than replace him. It didn't work as planned, since Monsignor Finn resented Father English and barely spoke to him for many years. Father English eventually became the pastor.

Father English had been a Marine Corps chaplain during World War II and had served with another battle-decorated chaplain named Joseph T Ryan. Father English was originally from Troy, New York and Father Ryan was from Albany. They became very close friends in the military and remained so throughout their lives.

In the mid 1950's, Pope Pius XII became alarmed at the plight of the Palestinian refugees and established a Pontifical Mission to Palestine. He contacted Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York and said he was looking for an American priest who could effectively manage the difficult job of getting aid -- food, medicine, and shelter -- to the Palestinians. Cardinal Spellman also served as the head of what was then known as the "Military Ordinariate" that coordinated the military chaplaincy for the US armed forces. Because of this role, he was very familiar with Father Ryan and was confident that Ryan could fill the bill. Soon, Father Joseph Ryan was on his way to the Middle East as the Pope's personal envoy to the Palestinian refugees. He served in this capacity for about three years and then returned to Albany. While Father Ryan was in the Middle East, he corresponded often with Father English, who was like a member of my family. We heard endless stories of Father Ryan's activities and challenges. Thus it is that I was made aware of the Palestinians' difficulties some 50 years ago.

As testimony that the Church took care of its own, in 1966, Father Ryan became the first Archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska. He later became the first Archbishop for the Military Services when the Military Ordinariate became an Archdiocese.

Father English died in 1988. I was able to visit him in 1987 as his health was deteriorating from the effects of cancer. Father Ryan lived until October of 2000. They were both terrific men, and dedicated, decorated marines to the end.

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