By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
As final preparations kick into high gear for Pope Francis’ scheduled Apostolic Journey to Iraq from 5 – 8 March, the Holy Father issued a message on Thursday to Iraqis ahead of his arrival, expressing his joy and anticipation of finally being physically present with them.
“Dear brothers and sisters in Iraq, peace be upon you!” Pope Francis said. “In a few days, I will finally be among you. I long to meet you, to see your faces and to visit your land, the ancient and extraordinary cradle of civilization.”
Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle Eastern nation comes as the realization of a dream of his predecessor, Pope St. John Paul II, who had planned to travel to Iraq at the end of 1999 but could not make the journey. The Pope's four-day journey will include visits to several cities, as well as meetings with Christian communities and religious leaders.
Penitent pilgrim of peace and reconciliation
“I come as a pilgrim, as a penitent pilgrim to implore forgiveness and reconciliation from the Lord after years of war and terrorism, to ask God for the consolation of hearts and the healing of wounds,” Pope Francis said.
Recent decades marked by war, insecurity and persecution have dwindled the numbers of the once vibrant Christian communities in Iraq which numbered between 1 and 1.4 million in 2003 but presently, are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people.
“And I come among you as a pilgrim of peace, to repeat: ‘you are all brothers and sisters’,” continued the Pope.
“Yes, I come as a pilgrim of peace in search of fraternity, animated by the desire to pray together and to walk together, also with brothers and sisters of other religious traditions, under the sign of our Father Abraham, who unites Muslims, Jews and Christians in one family.”
Comfort to a church in trying moments
Pope Francis, turning his thoughts to the many Christians who have borne witness to their faith in Jesus in the midst of difficult trials, expressed his gratitude to them and offered some fatherly words of comfort.
“I look forward to seeing you,” the Pope said. “I am honored to meet a martyred Church. Thank you for your witness.”
The Pope went on to acknowledge “the images of the destroyed houses and desecrated churches” that many Iraqi Christian communities still bear in mind. He prayed that the many martyrs they have known may “help us to persevere in the humble strength of love” and expressed to them “the affectionate caress of the whole Church, which is close to them and to the martyred Middle East” and encourages them to go forward.
“Let us not allow the terrible suffering you have experienced, which grieves me so much, to prevail,” Pope Francis urged. “Let us not give up in the face of the spread of evil.”
Further encouraging Iraqis to refer to their ancient sources of wisdom, the Pope reminded them of the example of Abraham who, though he left everything, never lost hope and went on to give birth to descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven.
“Dear brothers and sisters, let us look to the stars. There is our promise,” the Pope enjoined all.
Hope in spite of suffering
The Pope continued to express his closeness and his message of hope to the many others who have suffered over the years but have not fallen. These, noted the Pope, include Christians, Muslims and more particularly, the Yazidis who “have suffered so much.”
“I come to your blessed and wounded land as a pilgrim of hope,” said the Pope. “From you, in Nineveh, resounded the prophecy of Jonah, who prevented destruction and brought a new hope, the hope of God.”
Pope Francis enjoined everyone to be infected by this hope, “which encourages us to rebuild and begin again” and to help each other to strengthen our fraternity and to build together a future of peace, especially in these trying times of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic."
Concluding his message, the Holy Father reminded brothers and sisters of every religious tradition that it up to us to continue the journey that Abraham began thousands of years ago: to walk together, in the same spirit, along the paths of peace.
Pope Francis concluded his message invoking God’s blessings upon all and asking everyone to accompany him in prayer.
“I ask all of you to do the same as Abraham,” said the Pope. “Walk in hope and never stop looking at the stars.”