By Lydia O’Kane
In 2010, 48 worshippers including women and children, and two young priests were killed in a terrorist attack at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad.
More than ten years on from that horrific event, Pope Francis came to this place of worship on Friday, the first day of his Apostolic Visit to Iraq.
There he met with bishops, clergy, religious, seminarians, catechists and lay leaders, noting that they were “gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and His Church.”
Virus of discouragement
Addressing those present, the Pope told them never to lock down their apostolic zeal in the face of daily challenges, especially during this time of pandemic.
“We know how easy it is to be infected by the virus of discouragement that at times seems to spread all around us,” he said. “Yet the Lord has given us an effective vaccine against that nasty virus. It is the hope born of persevering prayer and daily fidelity to our apostolates.”
Pope Francis went on to say that with this vaccine, “we can go forth with renewed strength, to share the joy of the Gospel as missionary disciples and living signs of the presence of God’s kingdom of holiness, justice and peace.”
Perseverance amid hardship
The Pope highlighted the hardships that so many Iraqi faithful have faced in recent decades. He spoke of the effects of war and persecution, the fragility of basic infrastructures and the ongoing struggle for economic and personal security that has frequently led to internal displacements and the migration of many people, including Christians, to other parts of the world.
Pope Francis also thanked his “brother bishops and priests,” for remaining close to their people; and he encouraged them to persevere in these efforts, “in order to ensure that Iraq’s Catholic community, though small like a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole.”
“The love of Christ,” said the Pope, “summons us to set aside every kind of self-centredness or competition; it impels us to universal communion and challenges us to form a community of brothers and sisters who accept and care for one another.”
“How important is this witness of fraternal union in a world all too often fragmented and torn by division,” he said. “Every effort made to build bridges between ecclesial, parish and diocesan communities and institutions will serve as a prophetic gesture on the part of the Church in Iraq and a fruitful response to Jesus’ prayer that all may be one.”
During his address, Pope Francis pointed out that at times “misunderstandings can arise and we can experience certain tensions; these are the knots that hinder the weaving of fraternity.”
The Pope went on to say, “They are knots we carry within ourselves; after all, we are all sinners. Yet these knots can be untied by grace, by a greater love; they can be loosened by the medicine of forgiveness and by fraternal dialogue, by patiently bearing one another’s burdens and strengthening each other in moments of trial and difficulty.”
Be true fathers
In a special word to his brother bishops, the Pope urged them to be particularly close to their priests.
“Let them not see you as only an administrator or manager, but as true fathers, concerned for their welfare, ready to offer them support and encouragement with an open heart,” he said.
Tend to your flock
Pope Francis also invited the priests, religious, catechists, and seminarians present to go out among the flock and pay particular attention to those who risk being left behind, such as the young, the elderly, the sick and the poor.
“Be pastors, servants of the people, not civil servants,” he said.
Victims of violence
Turning his thoughts again to those brothers and sisters who died in the terrorist attack in this Cathedral some ten years ago, and whose cause for canonization is underway, the Pope stressed that “their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings.”
He also remembered all the victims of violence and persecution, regardless of the religious group to which they belong.
Blessed are the peacemakers
In this vast Cathedral, Pope Francis thanked all those gathered for their efforts to be peacemakers, within their communities and with believers of other religious traditions, “sowing seeds of reconciliation and fraternal coexistence that can lead to a rebirth of hope for everyone.”
He also mentioned all young people who, he said, were a “sign of promise and hope, but particularly in this country.”
Witnesses to God’s promises
Concluding his address, the Pope told these “brothers and sisters” they were part of a long history that faithfully bears witness “to God’s never-failing promises as they strive to build a new future."
"May your witness," he said, “matured through adversity and strengthened by the blood of martyrs, be a shining light in Iraq and beyond, in order to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and to make the spirit of this people rejoice in God our Saviour."
Before leaving the Cathedral, Pope Francis signed the guest book with the words:
"As a penitent and a pilgrim of faith and of peace in Iraq, I ask God to grant this people, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, the strength to rebuild the country in fraternity."