“Salaam, Salaam, Salaam! Shookran! Allah ma’akum.” Peace, Peace, Peace! Thank you! God be with you!.
With these words, Pope Francis ended the Mass in Erbil, his last major public event during his visit to Iraq. Energy and emotion already filled the stadium, and when he ended his remarks with these Arabic words, we all erupted in joy!
Francis, preaching on the “cleaning of the Temple” invited the people of Iraq, and the international community to a cleansing of return and rebuilding:
To cleanse our hearts, we need to dirty our hands, to feel accountable and not to simply look on as our brothers and sisters are suffering. How do we purify our hearts? By our own efforts, we cannot; we need Jesus. He has the power to conquer our evils, to heal our diseases, to rebuild the temple of our heart.
Fr. Joseph Cassar, SJ (JRS, Iraq Country Director) greeting Pope Francis after the Mass.
This theme of rebuilding, and more specifically of right return, was central in Francis’ many public events. In every event, he spoke of the need to reconciliation, of return to right relationship.
Speaking with JRS staff in Iraq, Muslim, Ezidi (Yezidi) and Christian alike, I was struck by the impact of his visit. That he visited was itself impressive. However, they were equally impressed with what he said. In a world that has become divided by the simplistic dualisms of opposition, retaliation and shortsighted “wins”, Francis spoke of murky fraternity – to be sisters and brothers to each other. In those relationships we do not look to win the other to our side, we seek to accompany one another in our messiness.
[Jesus] liberates us from the narrow and divisive notions of family, faith and community that divide, oppose and exclude, so that we can build a Church and a society open to everyone and concerned for our brothers and sisters in greatest need. At the same time, he strengthens us to resist the temptation to seek revenge, which only plunges us into a spiral of endless retaliation. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he sends us forth, not as proselytizers, but as missionary disciples, men and women called to testify to the life-changing power of the Gospel.
After the Mass (l to r) Marc Stephan Giese SJ (Jesuit Community Amman, Jordan); Michael Zammit SJ (Provincial, Jesuits of the Near East); Peter Balleis SJ (Jesuit Worldwide Learning); Daniel Corrou SJ (JRS Middle East); Joe Cassar SJ (JRS Iraq); Waseem Dinha (JRS Iraq).
This Lent, the image of “return” has been central to my prayer. I find myself yearning for a return to life before the pandemic, for a return to normalcy, to hugs and human contact. However, Francis has insisted that this return be something deeper, a return to right relationship, not a simple return to the unjust structures that existed before the pandemic.
This message of reconciliation has deep resonance in Iraq. However, it is a prophetic reminder to all. Our missionary call is to return to right relationship and deepen the bonds of human fraternity.
Note: Iraq is now part of the Jesuit Province of the Near East. Jesuit Refugee Service and Jesuit Worldwide Learning both operate in Iraq. Based in Erbil since 2015, Fr. Joe Cassar SJ has been leading the JRS Iraq response to the crisis caused by ISIS. JRS Iraq accompanies tens of thousands of people, Muslims, Yezidis, and Christians in Iraq. For more information, click here.
Fr. Daniel Corrou, SJ, is a Jesuit of the East Coast Province of the United States, serving in Beirut, Lebanon with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).