Pope Francis is back in Rome, and his historic visit to Iraq is in the books. By all the usual metrics, the trip was a magnificent success. There was wall-to-wall media coverage in-country – no surprise – while, around the world, words like “historic” and “courageous” peppered the news copy – and rightly so.
Greeting Pope Francis in Erbil on Sunday, Archbishop Bashar Warda said: “We thank you for your courage, that you would come here to our troubled land,” describing his country as a place of “endless disputes, displacement and suffering among the people.”
“That you would do so in this time of global pandemic and crisis,” Archbishop Warda went on to say, “makes real to us now the words of Christ, ‘Do not be afraid’.”
Archbishop Warda, a frank critic of government corruption in Iraq, was also clear-eyed when it came to the visit’s likely effect on Iraqi affairs in the short term. In late February, Archbishop Warda told the official CBCEW media outlet, CCN: “It’s not going to help the Christians materially or directly.”
Admittedly, there was a low bar to “success” in the just-concluded papal pilgrimage to Iraq: Francis knew he would make history as soon as he set foot on Iraqi soil, and keep making history with every breath he drew while he was there. His bet on Iraqi security forces’ ability to keep him and others from harm during the three-day visit was also a pretty safe one, despite the flurry of rocket attacks in days before his scheduled arrival, while preventing coronavirus contagion and tracking eventual spread were ultimately not his problem.
“I thought a lot about it,” Pope Francis said during the in-flight presser en route to Rome from Baghdad on Monday. Francis was responding to a journalist’s question about his concern over creating conditions with his visit, which would facilitate spread of the virus. “I prayed a lot about it,” Pope Francis went on to say, “and in the end I decided that He, who gave it to me to decide in this way, should look after the people.”
Driving the point home, Pope Francis reiterated that he came to his decision “after prayer and after taking account of the risks.”
Basically, Pope Francis was counting on Iraqi authorities to avoid catastrophe, knowing that the trip would be judged a success so long as nobody died and nothing blew up while he was there, and relying on public health officials and the Almighty, as well as the good sense of the people to keep folks healthy.
On the other hand, measuring the effect of the visit for good will be done by nanodegrees, and over decades.
As John Cookson pointed out for readers of the Catholic Herald, it is exceedingly rare for popes directly to bring about radical change to the lives of millions. John Paul II did it with his visits to his native Poland. He made nine of them, though – five between 1979 and 1991 – and was an implausibly charismatic figure with titanic stage presence and iron message discipline.
Around John Paul II, the groundswell of popular discontent with the evil Communist regime grown first dysfunctional and then sclerotic could crystallize and come into form for decisive action in history.
John Paul II used Reagan and Thatcher – and their “hard power” – to be effective on the world stage, but that was in service of a more far-sighted vision. Truth be told, the three leaders used each other. Their ménage, while effective, achieved a limited geopolitical scope, and was always a creature of convenience.
Pope Francis, in any case, was not working with anything like the circumstances that faced his predecessor in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Pope Francis knew from the outset that he would be going to sow, not to reap.
“In the Book of Jonah, the inhabitants of Nineveh heeded the words of your prophet and found salvation in repentance,” Pope Francis prayed in Mosul. “Lord, we now entrust to you the many victims of man’s hatred for man,” and “implore your forgiveness and beg the grace of repentance: Kyrie eleison! Kyrie eleison! Kyrie eleison!”
Like his sainted predecessor, Francis knows there is a darkness in the human heart that only the light of Christ, Our Lord, can dispel. This side of celestial Jerusalem, there will always be something in our nature unfixed and undone. There will always be those who choose violence and oppression, and those whose suffering seems unpreventable.
The pope recognizes this.
“With great sadness,” he said on Saturday in Qaraqosh, “we look around and see other signs, signs of the destructive power of violence, hatred and war.”
“How much has been torn down!” he exclaimed. “How much needs to be rebuilt!”
“Our gathering,” Pope Francis said, “shows that terrorism and death never have the last word.”
“The last word,” he went on to say, “belongs to God and to his Son, the conqueror of sin and death.”
In other words, he was never about work he intended to complete. He went not just to proclaim Christ, but to proclaim our dependence upon Christ, in the face of suffering that can’t be swept away as though it were merely an established order like that of the Communists in Poland. Changing minds and converting hearts is slow, painstaking work, frequently dangerous and mostly – though not invariably – tedious. It is generally thankless. Pope Francis decided on a long play.
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