The Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in northern Iraq, Bashar Warda, greeted Pope Francis at the end of Mass in Erbil’s Franso Hariri Stadium,saying on Sunday that the Holy Father’s “powerful message of brotherhood and forgiveness is a gift now to all the people of Iraq.”
“Pope Francis,” Archbishop Warda said, as the last public event of the last full day of the Holy Father’s visit came to a close beneath a rapidly darkening sky, “we offer our deepest thanks on behalf of the all the people gathered here, and those who are watching us around the world.”
“First,” Archbishop Warda said, “we thank you for your courage, that you would come here to our troubled land, a land so filled with violence, this place of endless disputes, displacement and suffering among the people, and that you would do so in this time of global pandemic and crisis, makes real to us now the words of Christ, ‘Do not be afraid’.”
Thanking Pope Francis for his prayers for the persecuted and the marginalized — in Iraq and around the world — Archbishop Warda said: “We know that through your prayers you continue to urge this broken world and this broken land to a time of peace, humility and prosperity, with dignity of life and purpose for all.”
Pope Francis was the chief celebrant and homilist at Mass for some 10,000 Iraqis — according to official figures — at Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, northern Iraq, on Sunday afternoon.
The facility is named after an Assyrian Christian politician and civic reform leader in Erbil, assassinated in 2001 by Kurdish members of an Al Qaeda splinter group.
It can seat 25,000, but ticketing was not to capacity and some social distancing measures were in force, in view of the coronavirus emergency. From Baghdad, the Catholic Herald’s correspondent, John Cookson, eyeballed the number at no more than half of capacity.
Even the chairs on the pitch were carefully placed, but great crowds had formed nonetheless.
Erbil is an ancient city that was already established in the time of the Assyrian Empire, and today has an ethnically and religiously diverse population that includes Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Christians, Yarsanis, and Yazidis. Refugees fleeing the so-called Islamic State in 2014 found safe haven in the city and its surrounding environs.
The late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over the scene.
The Mass was in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, for the Third Sunday of Lent. The First Reading was in Chaldean, the Second Reading in Kurdish, the Gospel in Arabic.
In his homily, Pope Francis preached on the divine power and wisdom in contrast with the human folly that believes itself sufficient, especially when it is powerful. “[T]he truth,” said Pope Francis, “is that all of us need the power and wisdom of God revealed by Jesus on the Cross.”
“On Calvary,” Pope Francis said, “he offered to the Father the wounds by which alone we are healed (cf. 1 Pet 2:24).”
“Here in Iraq,” Pope Francis went on to say, “how many of your brothers and sisters, friends and fellow citizens bear the wounds of war and violence, wounds both visible and invisible! The temptation is to react to these and other painful experiences with human power, human wisdom.”
“Instead,” Pope Francis urged, “Jesus shows us the way of God, the path that he took, the path on which he calls us to follow him.”
Pope Francis went on to praise the the Church in Iraq for the prodigious witness of her members to the Gospel of Christ, “by spreading Christ’s mercy and forgiveness, particularly towards those in greatest need.” He noted that, even amid great poverty and difficulty, many of those present “have generously offered concrete help and solidarity to the poor and suffering.”
“That is one of the reasons that led me to come as a pilgrim in your midst,” Pope Francis explained, “to thank you and to confirm you in your faith and witness.”
“Today, I can see at first hand that the Church in Iraq is alive, that Christ is alive and at work in this, his holy and faithful people.”