July/August 2021: Editorial

Francis – a penitent pilgrim pope

Pope Francis called himself ‘a penitent pilgrim’ to Iraq. He travelled during the season of Lent. On more than one occasion he asked for forgiveness from all Iraqis. With his visit, Pope Francis showed the Iraqi people that the West can come to Iraq as a presence of peace. The Pope matches his words with actions by going to a pandemic periphery. It was perfectly timed and the visit realigned the focus of the world: there are other current world issues, beyond the pandemic.
The visit was to support the declining Christian presence in Iraq who still endure terrible persecution and violence. The focus of the visit was about interreligious dialogue in Najaf and Ur, as well as Christian ecumenism. Pope Francis visited a Syrian Orthodox Church and an Armenian Apostolic Church. He not only visited Latin-rite traditions, but also the Chaldean and Syrian Catholic Christians. Here, there was a clear message: Christianity is not just a European religion that originated in the Mediterranean, but one that has non-European roots in Mesopotamia. This was a journey of shared humanity and fraternity. A final sentence from the Pope in Erbil is evocative. It charts a new pastoral outreach: ‘You are in my heart.’

There was another meeting with the Grand Ayatollah, Ali as-Sistani. Here is a reclusive man who has not received visitors for decades. There are no current photographs of him. On one occasion the two men stood facing each other with outstretched hands in a peace gesture of reconciliation. To honour this occasion, Iraq has marked 6 March as a ‘Day of Tolerance’. This follows the declaration of fraternity that was signed by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar when he visited Abu Dhabi on February 2019. The needs of the poor, the promotion of peace and dialogue with those on the margins are the desires of Pope Francis.

The Chaldean Liturgy the Pope celebrated was layered with a depth of history. It reminds us Europeans that Christianity is more than the product of the old Roman Empire. We are part of a diverse mosaic that is Western-European-Roman, Eastern European-Greek and a non-European tradition in Mesopotamia. The Pope revived this latter tradition by his visit to Iraq.

It would be great if there was a feast day to mark Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in our liturgical calendar! They have such a universal meaning. The lack of liturgical veneration of these arch-parents in the West is a blind spot in our understanding of the richness of our shared traditions. Perhaps, we could also liturgically celebrate our common roots, which for the great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity lie in Ur. Pope Francis has taken a first step there with his visit and his ‘prayer of the children of Abraham.’

As the Irish Catholic Church begins a ‘prayerful, communitarian discernment of reform, renewal and new hope’ toward a Synod of ‘communion, participation and mission’, may it be an ecumenical and inter-faith journey of forgiveness and friendship – where every voice is welcomed and valued and where no-one feels excluded from the embrace of God’s love.

John Cullen