Pope Francis arrived at the Syro-Catholic Cathedral at around 3:00 p.m., where he was welcomed by some of the faithful gathered around the church with applause, showing great affection and joy. The meeting with bishops, priests, religious men and women, seminarians and catechists would take place in the cathedral.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation is the seat of the Syro-Catholic archieparchy of Baghdad and has been the target of two terrorist attacks. One of them, in October 2010, was particularly serious, perpetrated by the self-styled Islamic State, where 48 people were killed, two of them priests.
Affection and gratitude
After greetings from Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan of Antioch of the Syrians and Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako, Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans, President of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Iraq, the Pope began his remarks.
The Holy Father began his address by expressing his affection for the entire Iraqi community. "I embrace you all with paternal affection. I thank the Lord who in his providence has allowed us this meeting today. I thank His Beatitude Patriarch Ignace Youssif Younan and His Beatitude Cardinal Louis Sako for their words of welcome".
The memory of those who have been victims of the attacks was not lacking, as the Pope made special mention of these places as "blessed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here have paid the extreme price of their fidelity to the Lord and to his Church. May the memory of their sacrifice inspire us to renew our confidence in the power of the Cross and its saving message of forgiveness, reconciliation and resurrection. Christians are called to bear witness to the love of Christ everywhere and at all times. This is the Gospel to proclaim and incarnate also in this beloved country. As bishops and priests, men and women religious, catechists and lay leaders, all of you share in the joys and sufferings, the hopes and anxieties of Christ's faithful.
Not to reduce apostolic zeal
The pandemic has aggravated "the needs of the people of God and the arduous pastoral challenges they face. In spite of everything," Francis continued, "what must never be stopped or reduced is our apostolic zeal, which you draw from very ancient roots, from the uninterrupted presence of the Church in these lands from the earliest times.
Faced with the virus of discouragement that seems to surround us, he said, we must not allow it to infect us. "The Lord has given us an effective vaccine against this terrible virus, which is the hope born of persevering prayer and daily fidelity to our apostolate. With this vaccine we can go forward with ever new energy, to share the joy of the Gospel, as missionary disciples and living signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of holiness, justice and peace."
"How much the world around us needs to hear this message. Let us never forget that Christ is proclaimed above all by the witness of lives transformed by the joy of the Gospel. As we see in the ancient history of the Church in these lands, a living faith in Jesus is "contagious"; it can change the world. The example of the saints shows us that following Jesus Christ "is not only true and just, but also beautiful, capable of filling life with a new radiance and a deep joy, even in the midst of trials" (Apostolic Exhortation, Apostolic Exhortation to the Church in the Church of the Holy Land, p. 25). Evangelii gaudium, 167)".
Unity in pain
The Holy Father joined in the pain and suffering of Iraqis in recent times. "In recent decades, you and your fellow citizens have had to face the consequences of war and persecution, the fragility of basic infrastructures and the ongoing struggle for economic and personal security, which has often led to internal displacement and the migration of many, including Christians, to other parts of the world. I thank you, my brother bishops and priests, for remaining close to your people, supporting them, striving to meet the needs of the people and helping each one to play his or her role in the service of the common good.
He also encouraged them to continue with care the educational and charitable work "of their particular Churches, which represent a valuable resource for the life of both the ecclesial community and society as a whole. I encourage them to persevere in this commitment, so as to ensure that the Catholic Community in Iraq, though small as a mustard seed (cf. Mt 13:31-32), continue to enrich the path of the whole country".
Diversity and unity
As could not be otherwise, the Pope also called for fraternity: "The love of Christ asks us to put aside every kind of self-centeredness and rivalry; it urges us to universal communion and calls us to form a community of brothers and sisters who welcome and care for one another (cf. Encyclical Letter, p. 4). Fratelli tutti, 95-96). I think of the familiar image of a carpet. The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its ancestral historical, liturgical and spiritual heritage, are like so many colorful threads that, woven together, make up a unique and beautiful carpet, which not only testifies to our fraternity, but also refers to its source. For God himself is the artist who devised this carpet, who weaves it with patience and mends it with care, wanting us to be always united with one another as his sons and daughters.
Francis encouraged, recalling the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch: "Let there be nothing in you that can divide you, [...] but that, gathered together in common, there may be one prayer, one hope in charity and in holy joy" (Ad Magnesios, 6-7: PL 5, 667). How important is this witness of fraternal unity in a world often fragmented and torn by our divisions. Every effort to build bridges between the community and ecclesial, parish and diocesan institutions will serve as a prophetic gesture of the Church in Iraq and as a fruitful response to Jesus' prayer that all may be one (cf. Jn 17,21; Ecclesia in Middle East, 37).
The words to the pastors and faithful, priests, religious and catechists stressed that the tensions that arise "are knots that we carry within us; in fact, we are all sinners. But these knots can be untied by grace, by a greater love; they can be loosened by forgiveness and fraternal dialogue, patiently bearing one another's burdens (cf. Gal 6,2) and strengthening each other in times of trial and difficulty".
Let us accompany the shepherds
He then wished to address his "brother bishops" in particular. I like to think of our episcopal ministry in terms of closeness, that is, our need to remain with God in prayer, together with the faithful entrusted to our care and with our priests. Be particularly close to your priests. Let them not see them as administrators or directors, but as fathers, concerned for the good of their children, ready to offer them support and encouragement with open hearts. Accompany them with your prayer, with your time, with your patience, valuing their work and encouraging their growth. In this way you will be for your priests a visible sign of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and gives his life for them (cf. Jn 10,14-15)".
And then returning to address all those present, the Pope encouraged them to proclaim the Gospel with courage: "You have all heard the voice of the Lord in your hearts, and like the young Samuel you have responded: 'Here I am'" (1 S 3,4). May this response, which I invite you to renew every day, lead each of you to share the Good News with enthusiasm and courage, living and walking always in the light of the Word of God, which we have the gift and the task of proclaiming. We know that our service also involves an administrative part, but this does not mean that we should spend all our time in meetings or behind a desk. It is important that we are in the midst of our flock and that we offer our presence and our accompaniment to the faithful in the cities and villages. I am thinking of those who risk being left behind, the young, the elderly, the sick and the poor.
The lineage of God's people
"When we serve our neighbor with dedication," Francis pointed out, "as you do, with a spirit of compassion, humility and kindness, with love, we are truly serving Jesus, as He Himself has told us (cf. Mt 25,40). And by serving Jesus in others, we discover true joy. Do not stray from the holy people of God among whom you were born. Do not forget your mothers and grandmothers, who have "nursed" you in the faith, as St. Paul would say (cf. 2 Tm 1,5). Be pastors, servants of the people and not public administrators. Always with the people of God, never separated as if you were a privileged class. Do not deny this noble "lineage" which is the holy people of God".
The Holy Father did not want to end without mentioning "our brothers and sisters who died in the terrorist attack on this Cathedral ten years ago and whose beatification is in process. Their death reminds us forcefully that incitement to war, attitudes of hatred, violence and bloodshed are incompatible with religious teachings (cf. Encyclical Letter, "The Death of our Brothers and Sisters"). Fratelli tutti, 285). And I would also like to remember all the victims of violence and persecution, belonging to any religious community.
Commitment to building peace
Tomorrow," Francis announced to them, "in Ur, I will meet the leaders of the religious traditions present in this country, to proclaim once again our conviction that religion must serve the cause of peace and unity among all the children of God. This afternoon I want to thank you for your commitment to be peacemakers, within your communities and with believers of other religious traditions, spreading seeds of reconciliation and fraternal coexistence that can lead to a rebirth of hope for all. I am thinking in particular of young people.
"Everywhere they are bearers of promise and hope, especially in this country. In fact, here there is not only a priceless archaeological heritage, but also an incalculable wealth for the future: the young people! They are your treasure and we must take care of them, nurturing their dreams, accompanying them along the way and strengthening their hope. Although young, certainly, their patience has already been severely tested by the conflicts of these years. But let us remember that they - together with the elderly - are the tip of the country's diamond, the best fruits of the tree. It is up to us to cultivate them for good and instill hope in them."
Faithful to God's promises
The Pope concluded by recalling that "by baptism and confirmation, by ordination or religious profession, you were consecrated to the Lord and sent to be missionary disciples in this land so closely linked to the history of salvation. By faithfully witnessing to God's promises, which never fail to be fulfilled, and by seeking to build a new future, you are part of that history. May your witness, matured in adversity and strengthened by the blood of the martyrs, be a shining light in Iraq and beyond, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and make the spirit of this people exult in God our Savior (cf. Lc 1,46-47)".