We are living in the most dangerous times to be a Christian but there is much Australians can do to help, says the new head of Aid to the Church in Need.
“Christian persecution is very much alive and more Christians died for their faith in the last century than in the previous 19 centuries of Christian history combined,” says Merrylands father of three, Bernard Toutounji.
“The work of ACN – in building and rebuilding churches, in assisting poor seminarians and religious, and in collecting Mass offerings which support tens of thousands of priests – is more vital than ever.”
Bernard took over the reins in January from Phillip Collignon who is retiring after 27 years of guiding the Australian arm of the organisation which, among other things, supports 45,000 priests in poor or persecuted Christian communities around the globe.
He brings to the role a background in theology and business and a decade of experience in ministry for the Archdiocese of Sydney in the areas of marriage and family, vocations, and social sciences, including four as the director of Catholic Youth Services.
Bernard has also taught at university level and written and spoken on faith and ethics in Australia and overseas.
“Bernard has a real love for the charity and he and his family have supported it for many years,” says Phillip. “He will take Aid to the Church in Need forward in a different direction but with a real love for its supporters and its work for the suffering and persecuted Church.”
Bernard told The Catholic Weekly that it is a “very humbling honour and a great privilege to be part of a work which engages people in the evangelising mission of the Church in a very deep way”.
“Our donors are extremely loyal. For them it is so much more than simply giving money to a good cause.” A major priority for his first year is to raise greater awareness of ACN as the only international Catholic organisation which focuses on the pastoral and spiritual support of struggling Christian communities.
He and his wife Jane, who have two young daughters and a third child due in April, have been supporters “in our own little way for a long time” but it is still relatively unknown.
“There is a huge opportunity to get the message out to Catholics in the 2500 parishes across the country who are not familiar with ACN and its work.”
Bernard serves as a sub-deacon in the Melkite church and also hopes to gain the support of eastern churches.
“The Syrian people are among the world’s most persecuted Christians and these are the relatives of the Maronites, Melkites, Chaldeans and other Orthodox communities established in Australia,” he said.