ON FRIDAY Pope Francis began the first ever visit of a pope to Iraq. You can follow his itinerary from the website of our Bishops Conference – Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales (cbcew.org.uk). The pandemic has taught us many things in the last year – provided we’re prepared to be taught. The first is the need to remember that we’re part of one world: there is no place for insular nationalism in our lives. While things have been bad in this country we should always focus our minds and prayers on those who suffer most. The second thing we have learnt, if we didn’t know it already, is the value of the ministry of Pope Francis, who is constantly teaching us to look beyond ourselves and our own problems. This is one of the big messages of Fratelli Tutti, the letter which he wrote last October, the focus of our parish Lent programme.
The Holy Father’s pilgrimage to Iraq helps us in both respects. At the time of the Great Jubilee (the year 2000) Pope St John Paul II wanted to go to Iraq because of the importance for Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, of the figure of Abraham. In the book of Genesis (11:29) we are told that he comes from ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’, thought to be the archaeological site of Tell el-Muqayyah near the town of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq (there are alter-native theories). The pope wasn’t able to go in 2000, so what Francis is doing is important at many levels; we can see how important it is because this is the first papal over-seas trip since the pandemic, and because Iraq is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It is also a country bound up with our history. My own grandfather, David Hallum, fought there in the First World War, and after that war Iraq was more or less under British control until the 1950s; moreover many of us marched in 2003 against Tony Blair’s illegal and immoral war. Much of the violence in the country since that conflict has been directed against the Christian communities in Iraq, some of the oldest in the world (we have had members of these communities as part of our congregation here over the years). Thousands of Christians have left Iraq in the last eighteen years, many have been killed and many Christian villages laid waste: part of the purpose of the pope’s visit is to show solidarity and support for these communities. Many of you support the charity Aid to the Church in Need (http://acnuk.org) which does a great deal to support Christians in Iraq.
But the pilgrimage is about much more than solidarity for beleaguered Christians.
Abraham is revered in all three of the world’s great monotheistic faiths, and building recon-ciliation among the adherents of these faiths is part of Pope Francis’ agenda. In his encyclical letter he stresses the ways in which he has worked with Muslim leaders. The theme of the visit is unity and mutual respect, inspired by Jesus’ words ‘You are all brothers and sisters’ (Matthew 23:8) and the pope is meeting Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani this weekend. Part of this is a witness against the depravity of war (a major theme of Fratelli Tutti) – witnessing against war and working for reconciliation are closely related.
In a sense every papal visit is a ‘statement’ but this is perhaps more true than ever this weekend. For a man of 84 years of age (who suffers from sciatica and lung problems) to make this pilgrimage at this time, taking risks for his own safety, has a message – a message of peace, of love, of solidarity with those who suffer, of co-operation, of reconciliation in the face of all that has brought so much suffering, so many tears, to the land of Abraham; and it’s a message for Lent as well. Please hold the Holy Father and the people of Iraq in your prayers this weekend (together with people from Iraq living here), and give thanks for his ministry in the Church and in the world.