Bernard Toutounji, who grew up in the Diocese of Parramatta, has recently been appointed as National Director of the Australian office of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
This came after the retirement of the highly respected longtime director, Philip Collignon.
“To me, the most unique and beautiful aspect of ACN is that it exists to support the suffering, persecuted and oppressed Church, that is, ACN is all about the spiritual and pastoral needs of Christians,” Bernard said.
The extraordinary organisation organises 1.5 million Mass offerings annually to support poor priests around the world, who may have no other means of support.
“In fact, 10 percent of all priests in the world are supported by ACN Mass offerings,” Bernard said.
“While of course we know that the Catholic Church has a venerable tradition of assisting people in the most difficult times of life, in many places the Church herself requires urgent help.”
According to Bernard, 200 million people across 80 countries cannot freely exercise their faith and Christians are actively persecuted in more than 40 countries.
“In all of these situations ACN seeks to uphold local churches, to ensure that the cross of Christ is able to be held high as a sign of faith and of hope,” he said.
Aid to the Church in Need’s bi-annual report on persecuted Christians, Persecuted and Forgotten has long detailed the suffering of Christians around the world.
Bernard is an Eastern Catholic, which gives him a unique connection to the persecuted Church in the Middle East.
“I feel the particular needs of the Eastern Christians and most particularly the sufferings of the people in Syria and the Middle East. I hope to use my connection to the Eastern Churches to highlight our work amongst the Eastern Catholics of Australia.”
“As a multicultural nation so many of the people living here, be they from Africa, Latin America or the Middle East, are aware of the sufferings of their people.”
“ACN provides a particular way to be present to those people, many of whom are siblings, relations and friends of those who now call Australia home.”
As a long-term benefactor of Aid to the Church in Need, Bernard first heard about their work while growing up in Sacred Heart Parish, South Mount Druitt.
“I do know I have always been especially drawn to the ‘Mass Offerings’, which ACN organises. I would often arrange Masses for the intentions of family and friends through ACN,” he said.
This particular aspect of the mission of ACN shows most deeply perhaps what ACN is about, Bernard said.
“Our work is not just sending money to countries in need but it is about building up the faith of the people.”
“This is for both the benefactors and those who will receive the support, this is the Communion of Saints in action!”
“My hope is to get a new generation of Catholics to see Mass offerings as a beautiful gift they can offer.”
Bernard encourages everyone to think about how they support the Church and especially the suffering and persecuted Church.
“What do we do for our fellow Christians who in many cases proclaim their Christianity in fear of death?”
“Put simply I would urge people to be more generous in their charitable giving.”
He points to the example of Protestants who live by the biblical tradition of giving 10 percent of their income to their church and charity.
“Sadly, in the Catholic Church we often pop $2 on the plate at Mass and think we have done our part. Saint Teresa of Calcutta told us to ‘give until it hurts’ and Jesus directed our attention to the widow who gave her last two coins to the poor.”
While an overnight transformation of attitudes to charitable giving is unrealistic, Bernard emphasises that giving is a moral obligation for workers, not merely something ‘nice’ for the financially successful.
“Perhaps one way to start is to give the first hour of one’s income each week, that is, if a person earns $20 an hour then give that amount per week, if they earn $40 an hour then donate that amount per week.”
“The amount we give is between us and God but we must give something regularly. And attached to this notion of how much we give is the notion of where we give our money.”
Charities that feed starving children are of greater importance than charities that feed starving cats, he said as an example.
“A charity that claims to help the poor but does that by distributing contraceptives and funding abortion should have no claim on our funds.”
“The work of ACN, which is unique as it is the only international spiritual and pastoral charity supporting persecuted and suffering Christians, should be one of the top charities for all Catholics.”
“Of course we may spread our donations to a number of causes that speak to us but it would be remiss if a Christian only gave to Christian causes via the collection plate.”
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