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A priest who served Eastern Christians takes home wealth of inspiring stories


CNEWA/John E. Kozar

John Burger - published on 06/29/20 - updated on 06/29/20

Msgr. John E. Kozar turns over reins of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

The past decade of Msgr. John E. Kozar’s life has had echoes of his first decade. Growing up in a Croatian immigrant family in Western Pennsylvania, he became familiar with the Eastern Christian Churches — both Catholic and Orthodox — to which many of the local immigrants from Eastern Europe belonged.

So when he took over in 2011 as president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association/Pontifical Mission for Palestine, the field in which he ministered was not totally unfamiliar. CNEWA, as it is commonly referred to, is a papal agency that serves Eastern Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe, Northeast Africa and India.

In addition, Msgr. Kozar had already served 10 years at another papal agency, as national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith and the Pontifical Mission Societies.

But nothing prepared him for a visit to Ethiopia, high up in a mountain village where most people had never seen, as he put it, “a white man with white hair.”

After a treacherous ride along narrow roads, where he feared shifting his weight just a bit would send the jeep-like vehicle down a mountain ravine, he and his hosts arrived in a village at 11,000 feet altitude.

“There had been about 250 children assembled to greet me,” the 74-year-old priest said in an interview this past week. “There was a little humble school there: no windows, no electricity, very crude. When I arrived I stepped out of the vehicle, and 250 children ran away. I terrified them.”

He called it “one of the best exercises in godly humility that was given to me.”

After a local priest persuaded the kids to come back, eventually, “very hesitatingly, they came up to me,” Msgr. Kozar related. “And within about 15 minutes they wanted to come up and look at me. Some of them just wanted to see what my shoes felt like.”

One of the ways CNEWA supported the school was through a biscuit-making program that provided nourishment for the children. They had to walk for miles over very steep mountainous trails to get to school.

“And they have so little to eat that often they would arrive in this humble little school and have class maybe under a tree or inside a school that’s just very crude, and they would faint because of their hunger,” Msgr. Kozar explained.

The school asked the guest of honor to distribute the biscuits that day. As he did so, he noticed that each child put one biscuit in a pocket or a little carrying bag, and then eat the other. Msgr. Kozar is a photographer by avocation, so he began photographing one girl doing this.

“And you know what she did?” he related. “She caught my eye and offered me one of her biscuits. I said Wow! This is the greatest example of what we would hope they would become. This is what Jesus himself would do. For her to offer me that biscuit, it just uplifted me. It elevated my priesthood. That’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m called to share the bread of life in the Eucharist.”

It’s just one of a myriad number of lessons Kozar takes with him as he prepares to hand over the reins of CNEWA to a Brooklyn, New York, priest, Msgr. Peter Vaccari, former rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, on July 1.

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