By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
“In the past few days, the Lord allowed me to visit Iraq, carrying out a project of Saint John Paul II,” Pope Francis said. “Never before has a Pope been in the land of Abraham. Providence willed that this should happen now, as a sign of hope, after years of war and terrorism, and during a severe pandemic.”
Pope Francis focused his catechesis during Wednesday’s General Audience - the first after returning from his Apostolic Journey to Iraq – on his reflections on his four-day visit to the Middle Eastern nation from 5 - 8 March.
The Pope said his soul is filled with gratitude: first to God, and to all who made it possible – the president and government of Iraq, the Patriarchs and bishops of the country, as well as the ministers and the faithful of their respective churches.
He also acknowledged other religious authorities, beginning with the Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, with whom the Pope had an “unforgettable” meeting at his residence in Najaf.
A hopeful church in spite of trials
“I strongly felt a penitential sense regarding this pilgrimage,” said the Pope.
“I could not draw near to that tortured people, to that martyr-Church, without taking upon myself, in the name of the Catholic Church, the cross they have been carrying for years; a huge cross, like the one placed at the entrance of Qaraqosh.”
Pope Francis explained that he felt this sense in a special way when he saw the still open wounds of the destruction, and even more so, when he met with and listened to the witnesses who had survived the violence and persecution.
However, at the same time, the Pope noted that he saw all around him, the “joy of welcoming Christ’s message” and “the hope of being open to a horizon of peace and fraternity” which were summed up in Jesus’ words expressed in the motto of his Apostolic visit to Iraq: “You are all brothers” (Mt 23:8).
This hope, the Pope insisted, he saw in the discourse of the Iraqi president, in the many greetings and testimonies, in the songs and gestures of the people, and on the luminous faces of the young and in the vivacious eyes of the elderly.
War destroys peace
“The Iraqi people have the right to live in peace; they have the right to rediscover the dignity that belongs to them,” Pope Francis stated.
Recalling the country’s religious and cultural roots which are thousands of years old, the Holy Father noted that Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilization.
Historically, he added, Baghdad is a city of primary importance, "hosting for centuries the richest library in the world."
“And what destroyed it? War!” the Pope lamented.
War, he explained, “is always the monster that transforms itself with the change of epochs and continues to devour humanity.”
“But the response to war is not another war, the response to weapons is not other weapons... The response is fraternity,” Pope Francis affirmed.
This, he insisted, is the "challenge not only for Iraq but for many regions in conflict and, ultimately, for the whole world.”
You are all brothers
Recalling his meeting with religious leaders in Ur during his Apostolic journey, Pope Francis said that Christians, Muslims and representatives came together to pray in Ur, where Abraham received God’s call about four thousand years ago.
He further explained that Abraham is our father in faith because listening to God's voice promising him descendants, he left everything and departed. And at Ur, standing together under the same sky in which our father Abraham saw us, his descendants, the phrase “You are all brothers” seems to resound once again.
“God is faithful to his promises,” the Pope said. He “guides our steps toward peace still today. He guides the steps of those who journey on Earth with their gaze turned toward Heaven."
Messages of fraternity: Baghdad, Mosul, Qaraqosh and Erbil
Further emphasizing the importance of fraternity, Pope Francis noted that a message of fraternity came from the ecclesial meeting in the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Baghdad where forty-eight people, including two priests were killed during the celebration of Holy Mass in 2010.
He said that in that temple which bears the names of those martyrs inscribed in stone, the joy of encounter resounded as his “amazement at being in their midst mingled with their joy at having the Pope among them.”
The Holy Father also launched another message of fraternity from Mosul and Qaraqosh, on the Tigris River, near the ruins of ancient Nineveh. There, the occupation of the so-called Islamic State caused several thousands to flee for their lives, including Christians and other persecuted minorities, in particular the Yazidis.
He noted that reconstruction efforts are underway and Muslims and Christians are working together to restore churches and mosques.
The Pope enjoined all to pray for them that “they may have the strength to start over.” He also remembered the many Iraqi emigrants and reminded them, who have left everything like Abraham, to “keep the faith and hope” and be weavers of friendship and fraternity where they are.
Another message of fraternity came from the two Eucharistic celebrations in Baghdad and Erbil.
Pope Francis explained that “Abraham’s hope, and that of his descendants is fulfilled in the mystery we celebrated, in Jesus, the Son that God the Father did not spare, but gave for everyone’s salvation: through His death and resurrection, He opened the way to the promised land, to that new life where tears dried, wounds are healed, brothers and sisters are reconciled.”
Prayers for Iraq, the Middle East
Concluding his remarks at the General Audience, the Pope praised God for the Apostolic Journey, and encouraged all to pray for Iraq and the Middle East where, in spite of the destruction and weapons, the palm trees, symbol of the country and its hope, have continued to grow and bear fruit.
“So it is for fraternity,” the Pope said. “It does not make noise, but is fruitful and makes us grow.”