My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This week, I would like to give some personal reflection on the recent trip of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to Iraq. Thankfully, through our NET-TV station and online sources, I was able to follow some of his major events. Obviously, the visit of Pope Francis was historic; it also pointed out the major complexity and diversity of the population of Iraq, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and representation from almost every Eastern Church and Orthodox Church in the world.
Pope Francis said, “The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single beautiful carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source. For God Himself is the artist who imagined this carpet, patiently wove it and carefully mends, desiring us ever to remain closely knit as his sons and daughters. May we thus take to heart the admonition of Saint Ignatius of Antioch: ‘Let nothing exist among you that may divide you…but let there be one prayer, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy” (Ad Magnesios, 6-7: PL 5, 667).
Our Holy Father clearly showed the results of the Synod on the Middle East where the Church officially recognized, as St. John Paul II said so often, that it must breathe with both lungs, the East and the West. The determination of Pope Francis to take a rather dangerous journey amid terrorism and the coronavirus pandemic was truly a commitment to the vision that the Church is one and that the Church reaches out to other religions and other Christians separated by historical circumstances.
The Nineveh Plain is the birthplace of monotheistic religion, as it is the birthplace of Abraham, who was called from Ur Kasdim to come and set up a new nation of faith devoted to God alone. The vagaries of history have made it so difficult to see the common origin of the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perhaps the pope’s visit will give all a chance and opportunity to recapture our common origins and beliefs in the one true God and only derive our solidarity as His children.
One of the first stops of Pope Francis was the Cathedral of Our Lady Salvation in Baghdad, a Syriac Catholic Cathedral. I have known His Beatitude, Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan, who is the Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and all the East of the Syriacs for the Syriac Catholic Church. We were fellow priests ministering in the Archdiocese of Newark; he worked with the Syrian Catholic community and I at various parishes. In fact, he took over the Italian Mass I celebrated at Our Lady of Lourdes in Union City during the years I was appointed to work for the Migration and Refugee Services at the US Bishops Conference.
We have maintained a friendship over these past years. To see him on television during this papal visit to Iraq, recognizing the suffering of his people, and the efforts he has made from his patriarchal home now in Lebanon to assist the refugees was a real moving situation for me to witness. In fact, through the Diocesan Mission Collection taken up each January, the Diocese of Brooklyn has assisted the Patriarch with his relief efforts for the refugees from Syria who have flooded into Lebanon, and who seek the assistance of the Syrian Catholic Church.
Another moving scene for me to witness was the Holy Father’s visit to the Church in Quaraqosh. This was the home of most Christians, and this city was almost completely destroyed. We see that these people have returned, trying to rebuild. My special memory was of Bishop Yousif Habash, who has also been a long-time friend of mine. Since 2010, he has ministered as the Eparch of Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark, taking the place of Patriarch Younan. His territory includes the United States and 16,000 Syriac Catholics, and Canada. Bishop Habash’s cathedral is in Bayonne, New Jersey. Several years ago, I remember that after the take-over of Qaraqosh by Isis, Bishop Habash shared with me his great dismay that someday he hoped to retire and return to Qaraqosh and live on the ancestral lands that have been his for too many generations to count. But at that time, it seemed that this dream was an impossible one.
As the Holy Father said in his visit to Qaraqosh, quoting the Prophet Joel, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophecy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (cf. Joel 3:1). Perhaps someday the dream of Bishop Yousif may come true and he may return to Qaraqosh.
The final Mass on this papal visit was held in a stadium in Erbil. Seeing this Mass on television also was something that touched me personally. This Mass was attended by representatives of all of the Christian religious bodies of Iraq. Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the Latin Rite however he became the first pope to ever celebrate in the Chaldean Rite with the Mass in Bagdad. This reminded me of the universality of the Church.
We also have a diocesan connection to Erbil through Msgr. Kieran Harrington, who during his sabbatical from January in 2017 spent six weeks in Erbil teaching a course on communications at the newly established Catholic university. The local Archbishop, Bashar Matte Warda, established this university in order to keep the young people in Erbil and to give them a future in their own homeland. In addition, Msgr. Harrington continues his work with Aid to the Church in Need USA, serving as Ecclesiastical Assistant, and follows closely the events in the Middle East.
We also have our own Msgr. Peter Vaccari who since June of 2020 has served as the new president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). CNEWA assists various Churches in the Middle East with funding for pastoral and social assistance through their fundraising.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has truly put out into the deep waters of a complex Middle East political and religious situation. His vision, however, was one that was clearly defined by his commitment to those most marginalized in the Church; those most in need. As a father or mother who would risk themselves if one of their children was ill or in peril, our Holy Father has done just that. Please join me in keeping the people of Iraq in prayer, that peace and prosperity may return to that troubled land.
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