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Why Christians hope Pope Francis’ visit will bring a ‘reset’ for Iraq

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq is hoped to bring a “reset” for the country, said one U.S. religious freedom advocate who has visited the region multiple times in recent years.

“Iraq cannot continue the way that it is, and see good outcomes. So there has to be some adjustments,” said Nadine Maenza, a commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in an interview with CNA on Friday.

“I’m hoping that the light being shown on Iraq, and on Christians in particular, by the pope coming—it’s such a beautiful moment of just saying these people have value, they belong in Iraq, we all need to figure out how we can build a better Iraq together—I just hope it does have a restart for the country,” she said.

Maenza has traveled to the region multiple times in the last two years, including a visit to Sinjar, home to the Yazidi religious minority, as well as Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where many Christians fled from ISIS in 2014.

She spoke to CNA at the outset of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq, the first-ever visit of a pope to the country. From March 5-8, Pope Francis will meet with the country’s political and religious leaders, hoping to encourage the local church and foster interreligious dialogue.

On Friday, Pope Francis met with the country’s political and diplomatic leaders, as well as around 100 local Catholic leaders including Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph Younan and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako.

The pope addressed the Catholics at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, where 48 people were martyred during a 2010 terrorist attack.

Christians in Iraq have been devastated by the U.S. invasion in 2003, the resulting sectarian violence, and the rise of ISIS in 2014. Their population has been steadily dwindling for decades, from around 1.5 million in 2003 to around 250,000 Christians in the country.

However, when ISIS swept across the region in 2014, many Christians fled into neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, taking refuge in and around the city of Erbil.

Maenza told CNA that Iraqi Christians are currently suffering from two chief problems: a lack of security and a lack of economic opportunity. She hoped Pope Francis’ visit would draw attention to these matters and help produce a solution.

Christians and Yazidis want to be involved in the decision-making about the future of the country, but they have not been given a seat at that table, she said.

“These people feel powerless,” Maenza said, noting their frustration that they don’t have a say in economic or security policy.

Iraq has resources, including the fifth largest oil reserves in the world, but the country is not able to even provide consistent electricity or water to its citizens, much less a sufficient number of jobs, she said.

After ISIS was defeated, many Christians in the country’s north have been unwilling or unable to return to their liberated towns on the Nineveh Plain or in Mosul. They still have serious security concerns, Maenza explained.

A number of militia units of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), as well as the country’s security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and Christian militias, are all active in the region, she said, yet many of their members do not hail from the local towns they occupy.

Maenza compared the situation to the “Wild West,” where any citizen traveling through the security checkpoints is subjected to a shakedown. Thus, many Christians who fled ISIS but who remain in Iraq have not yet returned to their homes because they don’t feel safe with the presence of the militias and security forces.

Christians need to be reminded that they are a part of Iraq’s future—which will hopefully be a fruit of Pope Francis’ trip, she said. “Diversity is a good thing,” Maenza said of the Sunni and Shia Muslims and the number of ethno-religious minorities that make up Iraq’s population.

Pope Francis on Friday used the metaphor of a complex carpet to describe the different Christian churches in the country.

“The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single beautiful carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source,” the pope said.

“For God himself is the artist who imagined this carpet, patiently wove it and carefully mends it, desiring us ever to remain closely knit as his sons and daughters.”

Pope Francis will also meet with leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during his trip.

The meeting is significant, Maenza explained, and hoped that the pope could successfully push for Shiite militias on the Nineveh plain to stand off so that local Christians can safely return to their homes and live peacefully.

“That kind of conversation is a good thing,” she said.

Pope Francis backs prior of ‘troubled’ ecumenical community amid clash with founder

Vatican City, Mar 5, 2021 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis on Friday underlined his support for the prior of a “troubled” ecumenical community amid a dispute with its founder.

A statement issued by the Holy See press office on March 5 noted that the pope met with Br. Luciano Manicardi, prior of the Bose Monastic Community, on the eve of his trip to Iraq. 

Fr. Amedeo Cencini, the pontifical delegate to the community founded in northern Italy in 1965, also attended the meeting.

“His Holiness thus wished to express to the prior and to the Community his closeness and his support, in this troubled phase of its life, confirming his appreciation for the Community and for its peculiarity of being formed by brothers and sisters from different Christian churches,” the press office said.

“Pope Francis, who from the beginning has followed the matter with particular attention, also wished to confirm the work of the pontifical delegate in recent months, thanking him for having acted in full harmony with the Holy See, with the sole intent of alleviating the suffering of both individuals and the Community.”

The statement comes amid a standoff between the Community and its founder, the prominent Italian layman Enzo Bianchi.

The Holy See had given Bianchi until Feb. 17 to leave the monastery after issuing a decree, signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on May 13, 2020, following an apostolic visitation.

A Feb. 18 statement on the Community’s website announced “with deep bitterness” that Bianchi had not left the community in Piedmont to move to Tuscany as instructed by the pontifical delegate in January.

Bianchi founded the community in Biella in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. It is a mixed community, composed of both men and women, who pray the Liturgy of the Hours and follow a rule influenced by St. Benedict and St. Basil the Great. Members include Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians.  

A charismatic figure, Bianchi has maintained a high profile in the Italian Church. He took part in the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization and was named a consultor for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 2014.  

Bianchi resigned as prior of the community in 2017 and Manicardi was chosen as his successor. 

The apostolic visitation, which took place between Dec. 6, 2019, and Jan. 6, 2020, was conducted by Fr. Guillermo León Arboleda Tamayo, Abbot President of the Benedictine Subiaco Cassinese Congregation, Cencini, a consultor for the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, and Mother Anne-Emmanuelle Devéche, Abbess of Blauvac, France.

In a 2020 statement, the Community said that Cencini had communicated the Vatican’s ruling privately to those concerned with “the greatest possible respect for the privacy of the interested parties.”

But after “several of the interested parties” rejected the measures, it said it was “opportune to specify that the above-mentioned provisions regard Br. Enzo Bianchi, two brothers and one sister, who are to separate themselves from the Monastic Community of Bose and to move to another place and who at the same time are relieved of all the offices they presently hold.”

The statement added that Parolin had sent a letter to the community that “has traced a path of the future and of hope, indicating the basic lines of a process of renewal, which, we trust, will give a fresh impetus to our monastic and ecumenical life.”

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported on March 4 that Pope Francis had also communicated with Bianchi as he sought to resolve the disagreement.

Bianchi has not commented directly on the latest developments, but he has appeared to address the situation indirectly via his Twitter account.

A few days before defying the order to leave, he wrote: “The exercise of silence is difficult and tiring for all of us, but the hour comes when the truth cries out precisely with silence: even Jesus, according to the Gospels, kept silent before Herod, and did not deign to give him an answer. So silence yes, assent to the lie no!”

The Holy See press office statement concluded: “Finally, the Holy Father manifested his solicitude in accompanying the path of conversion and recovery of the Community according to the orientations and modalities clearly defined in the decree of May 13, 2020, the contents of which the pope reiterates and whose implementation he asks for.”

Tattoo artist restores Stations of the Cross in Belarus

CNA Staff, Mar 5, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- A tattoo artist has restored the Stations of the Cross at a church in Belarus at the invitation of the local pastor. 

Julia Kulba -- known in the tattoo business as Pipetka -- applied her skills to the 14 bas-relief Stations of Cross at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Adamovichi, a village in the northwestern Grodno Region.

Catholic.by, the website of the Catholic Church in Belarus, reported March 4, that Fr. Alexander Shemet also asked Kulba to restore an image of Christ the Good Shepherd.

“They turned to me. I gladly accepted the offer,” Kulba told Hrodna.life, which first reported on her project and created a slider showing a before-and-after view of one of the Stations.

Kulba, a highly regarded tattoo artist with more than 15 years of experience, had never restored a religious artwork before Shemet approached her in early 2021. She worked with her sister, who is also a trained artist.

The church was built in 1854. A former prisoner of a Soviet camp began to restore the Stations 60 years ago but was forced to abandon the work due to ill health.

The ex-prisoner worked under the guidance of the then pastor, Fr. Kazimir Orlowski. He was ordained a priest in 1939, serving as a chaplain to the Polish resistance movement in World War II. In 1950, he was arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to death. His sentence was ultimately commuted to 25 years in a penal camp. 

After serving part of his sentence, Orlowski returned to the church and oversaw its restoration.

Belarus is a landlocked country bordering Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Catholics are the second-largest religious community after Orthodox Christians, comprising roughly 15% of the 9.5 million population. 

Hrodna.life reported that Kulba and her sister worked inside the church for a week during daylight hours.

She told the publication that the restoration would be “for the good not only of the church but also of the people who come here.” 

Papal Mass in Erbil 'nothing short of a miracle', organizer says

Erbil, Iraq, Mar 5, 2021 / 11:19 am (CNA).- When Vida Hanna was told by the Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil that Pope Francis was coming to Iraq, she thought to herself it was just another rumor.

Growing up in the Chaldean Catholic community in Erbil, Hanna, 27, was a little girl when there were rumors that St. John Paul II was planning to come to Iraq for the Jubilee 2000.

“But once I saw the official announcement from the Vatican, I knew this time it was for real,” she told CNA from her office at the Catholic University in Erbil.

Hanna, who graduated in communications at UC San Diego, is the director of public and international relations at the Catholic university, and Archbishop Warda appointed her coordinator of the Mass Pope Francis will celebrate March 7 at Erbil's Franso Hariri Stadium.

“COVID has devastated the local economy, so organizing an event of this magnitude, even for the local Kurdish autonomous authorities, was financially impossible,” Hanna said. But according to her, the Knights of Columbus stepped in on their own initiative. “With their usual generosity and discretion, they made this dream possible for the whole community,” she added.

“Calling this event historical is almost an understatement for all minorities, especially Christian, after centuries of massacre, persecutions, and forced displacement.”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Vida Hanna was chosen to coordinate the Mass Pope Francis will celebrate on March 7 in Erbil. She says the people are overjoyed by the Holy Father&#39;s visit as he brings &quot;a sign of hope, peace and love,&quot; for the marginalized people of the region. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PopeinIraq?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PopeinIraq</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PopeFrancisInIraq?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PopeFrancisInIraq</a> <a href="https://t.co/UJ8wYYF7Kz">pic.twitter.com/UJ8wYYF7Kz</a></p>&mdash; Catholic News Agency (@cnalive) <a href="https://twitter.com/cnalive/status/1367931531029737472?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">March 5, 2021</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

Once the funds were secured, Hanna convoked volunteers. They got far more than they expected to, because “all the Christian kids know that this is a once in a life opportunity.”

She then put the Catholic university IT managers to work on software that would guarantee high standards of identity recognition.

“This took quite an effort, because, as you can understand, the security standards have to be very high: we need to double check documents, correct name spellings, make sure they match IDs, and so forth,” she told CNA.  

The volunteers were trained at the Catholic university, gathered information from Christians in a 50 mile radius from Erbil, and set up 30 computers at the campus. “The sign-in for the 10,000 available seats lasted two weeks, while simultaneously, a group of volunteers with church and government experts scouted the stadium, established perimeters, security areas, and contingency plans,” Hanna says. 

She told CNA that with all this details taken care of, “the next challenge was transportation.” “Keep in mind, never before in Erbil, 10,000 people have been simultaneously transported to a single place in an orderly fashion. But we are now very confident that everything is in place and will work fine.” 

Hanna is especially happy that the Mass is involving so many young people. Beside the 250 young volunteers, there are another 100 youth in the chorus that will accompany the Mass.

“All of the local young Christians are in awe that this is happening to them and their generation... and it is so much needed! Only the Holy Father can bring the sense of security, the inner peace, the hope for a society that accepts religious diversity,” she said.

During the Mass, local Muslim authorities will attend, and there will be a place reserved for other minorities such as the Yazidis. The celebration will include passages in Aramaic, Kurdish, Arabic, English, and Italian. “I will be doing one of the readings in Aramaic, the language of Jesus… so I am a bit nervous,” Hanna joked.

“But the important thing is that the Mass will be not only the celebration of Jesus’ sacrifice, but also a strong message to our young Christians: you can stay, you don’t need to leave, you can build a future here, in the land where we Christians have been for almost two millennia.”  

Maine diocese, state, increase church attendance in time for Holy Week

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 10:30 am (CNA).- Two weeks after the Bishop of Portland in Maine called state restrictions on religious gatherings “unacceptable,” Maine’s governor is allowing churches to host at 50% capacity beginning March 26. 

Gov. Janet Mills (D) announced on Friday that Maine churches will soon be able to host indoor religious gatherings at 50% capacity, a significant change from the state’s Feb. 12 restrictions of five people per 1,000 feet of church space or 50 people total.

About two hours before the state issued the order, Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland had announced the diocese would be increasing attendance limits at indoor Masses and liturgies to 50% church capacity. 

“The diocese is pleased that Governor Mills agrees with the diocese’s plan as Maine’s Catholic churches, which have successfully held over 25,000 Masses since June, will now be in line with neighboring states in our ability to provide greater opportunity to parishioners in Maine,” Dave Guthro, the head of communications for the Diocese of Portland, told CNA on Friday.  

Guthro told CNA that the diocese had been in communication with the governor since the Feb. 12 announcement, hoping Mills would “reconsider” her order “as it did little to help Maine Catholics.”

“We asked the governor to consider the mental and spiritual needs of Mainers, who will now be able to have the additional opportunities to grow in faith and community at Holy Week and beyond,” Guthro said.

The state’s expanded capacity limits can go into effect on the Friday before Holy Week - a liturgical significance that Bishop Deeley emphasized in his statement on Friday. 

“The events commemorated in Holy Week are the focus of our reflection and penance during Lent. The climax of the mission of Jesus is unfolded. The love of God he reveals to us becomes very real for us in his suffering, death, and resurrection,” Bishop Deeley said of Holy Week. 

“I know that expanding our capacity for in-person worship at the start of Holy Week will bring great joy to many parishioners who have been unable to attend Mass as they wish due to attendance restrictions. Now, they can participate in the most solemn week of the year as we, together, remember the events which are at the heart of our Christian faith,” he stated.

Precautions will remain in place at churches during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the bishop said, including the dispensation from the Sunday obligation and requirements of masks and social distancing for attendees. 

The announcement of the capacity increase comes one day after nearby Connecticut lifted all capacity restrictions on retail establishments and houses of worship, requiring only social distancing and masking. 

Churches in Maine have been under some of the strictest regulations in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Until Friday’s announcement, capacity at houses of worship had been mostly limited to just 50 people since their reopening in June, 2020. 

There have been no outbreaks of coronavirus traced to a Mass in the state of Maine, the diocese said. 

Maine’s only Catholic diocese has been critical of Gov. Mills over capacity restrictions in recent weeks. 

On Feb. 12, Mills announced an “expansion” of capacity for houses of worship that allowed for five people per 1,000 square feet. According to the diocese, the “expansion” only increased capacity at fewer than 10 of the state’s 141 Catholic churches. 

Deeley called for a percentage capacity restriction similar to that of other states. He said that the governor’s office had refused to work with the diocese in crafting restrictions for houses of worship.

“This ruling, though sold as an ‘expansion,’ provides no real advance for the vast majority of the state,” said Deeley in a Feb. 17 statement provided to CNA. 

Two of Maine’s largest churches--the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland and the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston--could hold 975 people and more than 1,500 people inside, respectively. However, under the state’s restrictions, they would only be able to hold at most 63 people and 105 people inside, respectively. 

The previous hard cap of 50 people inside churches had been particularly hard on families, Guthro explained to CNA in February, as a family of five would account for 10% of the legal capacity at one Mass. Many parishes in Maine required people to sign up for Masses ahead of time, and names were checked at the door prior to entry. 

Saint John Joseph of the Cross

Engraving of Saint John Joseph of the Cross
Image: Saint John Joseph of the Cross | Engraving by Alessandri after P.A. Novelli

Saint of the Day for March 5

(August 15, 1654 – March 5, 1734)
Click here to listen

Saint John Joseph of the Cross’ Story

Self-denial is never an end in itself but is only a help toward greater charity—as the life of Saint John Joseph shows.

John Joseph was very ascetic even as a young man. At 16, he joined the Franciscans in Naples; he was the first Italian to follow the reform movement of Saint Peter Alcantara. John Joseph’s reputation for holiness prompted his superiors to put him in charge of establishing a new friary even before he was ordained.

Obedience moved John Joseph to accept appointments as novice master, guardian and, finally, provincial. His years of mortification enabled him to offer these services to the friars with great charity. As guardian he was not above working in the kitchen or carrying the wood and water needed by the friars.

When his term as provincial expired, John Joseph dedicated himself to hearing confessions and practicing mortification, two concerns contrary to the spirit of the dawning Age of Enlightenment. John Joseph of the Cross was canonized in 1839.


Reflection

John Joseph’s mortification allowed him to be the kind of forgiving superior intended by Saint Francis. Self-denial should lead us to charity—not to bitterness; it should help us clarify our priorities and make us more loving. John Joseph is living proof of Chesterton’s observation: “It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, page 101).


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Archbishop Gomez to Congress, Biden: Don’t force pro-life Americans to oppose COVID relief

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 09:00 am (CNA).- As the Senate considers a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package on Friday, the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference warned that the bill will fund abortions.

“We urge President Biden and the leadership on Capitol Hill not to force upon Americans the wrenching moral decision whether to preserve the lives and health of the born or unborn, all of whom are our vulnerable neighbors in need,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), in a statement on Friday.

He implored Congress not to force pro-life Americans to oppose the COVID relief bill.

“We ask that our leaders please not pit people against one another in such a way,” he said, asking for the pro-life protections to be added in to the legislation.

The American Rescue Plan of 2021, which passed the House last week, does not include traditional abortion funding restrictions. Pro-life groups, including the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), have warned that it would result in a significant increase in funding of abortions, abortion coverage, and abortion providers.

The president of March for Life Action, Tom McClusky, said the relief bill “has the potential to be the largest expansion of abortion funding since Obamacare.”

In 2010, the USCCB opposed the Affordable Care Act in large part due to expectations that it would allow for subsidies of abortion coverage. A 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office found that abortion coverage was being subsidized in health care plans under the law.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus, said on EWTN’s The World Over on Thursday that the funding to state and local governments in the bill has “absolutely no strings” attached and could go to abortion providers. In addition, federally-qualified health centers would receive billions of dollars; once subject to pro-life funding restrictions, Smith said the federally-funded centers could now do abortions under the COVID relief bill.

On Friday, Gomez noted that Congress for 45 years “has maintained that taxpayers should not be forced against their conscience to pay for abortions.”

The Hyde Amendment, enacted in law each year since 1976 as a rider to budget bills, prohibits federal funding of elective abortions. Once receiving bipartisan support, the policy is now opposed by leading Democrats—including by previous long-time supporter President Biden.

“Abandoning this compromise in a time of national emergency only serves to divide people in the very moment we should be united,” Archbishop Gomez said.

The archbishop emphasized that the rest of the bill is “important” in its goal of providing “much needed assistance for American families and businesses hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.”

In a Feb. 26 letter, the conference highlighted “many positive provisions” in the legislation that included increases to food stamp benefits, emergency rental and homelessness assistance, and unemployment benefits.

However, the USCCB warned, “billions of dollars for health care services” are not subject to abortion funding restrictions, “and could therefore allow funding of abortions.”

On Friday, Gomez said that pro-life members of Congress and many Americans will be forced to oppose the bill for its lack of pro-life funding protections.

The conference has also asked for increased access to aid for Catholic schools, and for the charitable tax deduction to be available to all taxpayers whether or not they itemize their deductions.

Full text: Pope Francis’ address at Baghdad’s Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation

Baghdad, Iraq, Mar 5, 2021 / 08:30 am (CNA).- Here is the full text of Pope Francis’ address to bishops, priests, religious, consecrated persons, seminarians, and catechists, delivered March 5, 2021, at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad.

Your Beatitudes, Your Excellencies, Dear Priests and Religious, Dear Brothers and Sisters, I embrace all of you with a father’s affection. I am grateful to the Lord who in his providence has made it possible for us to meet today. I thank His Beatitude Patriarch Ignace Youssif Younan and His Beatitude Cardinal Louis Sako for their words of welcome. We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his Church. May the memory of their sacrifice inspire us to renew our own trust in the power of the cross and its saving message of forgiveness, reconciliation and rebirth. For Christians are called to bear witness to the love of Christ in every time and place. This is the Gospel that must be proclaimed and embodied in this beloved country as well. 

As bishops and priests, men and women religious, catechists and lay leaders, all of you share in the joys and sufferings, the hopes and anxieties of Christ’s faithful. The needs of God’s people, and the daunting pastoral challenges that you daily face, have been aggravated in this time of pandemic. What must never be locked down or reduced, however, is our apostolic zeal, drawn in your case from ancient roots, from the unbroken presence of the Church in these lands since earliest times (cf. Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 5). We know how easy it is to be infected by the virus of discouragement that at times seems to spread all around us. Yet the Lord has given us an effective vaccine against that nasty virus. It is the hope, it is the hope born of persevering prayer and daily fidelity to our apostolates. With this vaccine, we can go forth with renewed strength, to share the joy of the Gospel as missionary disciples and living signs of the presence of God’s kingdom of holiness, justice and peace. 

How much the world around us needs to hear that message! Let us never forget that Christ is proclaimed above all by the witness of lives transformed by the joy of the Gospel. As we see from the earliest history of the Church in these lands, a living faith in Jesus is “contagious”; it can change the world. The example of the saints shows us that Christian discipleship is “not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of great difficulties” (Evangelii gaudium, 167). 

Hardships are part of the daily experience of the Iraqi faithful. In recent decades, you and your fellow citizens have had to deal with the effects of war and persecution, the fragility of basic infrastructures and the ongoing struggle for economic and personal security that has frequently led to internal displacements and the migration of many people, including Christians, to other parts of the world. I thank you, my brother bishops and priests, for remaining close to your people, close to your people, supporting them, striving to meet their needs and helping them play their part in working for the common good. The educational and charitable apostolates of your local Churches represent a rich resource for the life of both the ecclesial community and the larger society. I encourage you to persevere in these efforts, in order to ensure that Iraq’s Catholic community, though small like a mustard seed (cf. Mt 13:31-32), continues to enrich the life of society as a whole.



The love of Christ summons us to set aside every kind of self-centeredness or competition; it impels us to universal communion and challenges us to form a community of brothers and sisters who accept and care for one another (cf. Fratelli tutti, 95-96). Here I think of the familiar image of a carpet. The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single beautiful carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source. For God himself is the artist who imagined this carpet, patiently wove it and carefully mends it, desiring us ever to remain closely knit as his sons and daughters. May we thus take to heart the admonition of Saint Ignatius of Antioch: “Let nothing exist among you that may divide you… but let there be one prayer, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy” (Ad Magnesios, 6-7: PL 5, 667). How important is this witness of fraternal union in a world all too often fragmented and torn by division! Every effort made to build bridges between ecclesial, parish and diocesan communities and institutions will serve as a prophetic gesture on the part of the Church in Iraq and a fruitful response to Jesus’ prayer that all may be one (cf. Jn 17:21; Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 37). 

Pastors and faithful, priests, religious and catechists share, albeit in distinct ways, in responsibility for advancing the Church’s mission. At times, misunderstandings can arise and we can experience certain tensions; these are the knots that hinder the weaving of fraternity. They are knots we carry within ourselves; after all, we are all sinners. Yet these knots can be untied by grace, by a greater love; they can be loosened by the medicine of forgiveness and by fraternal dialogue, by patiently bearing one another’s burdens (cf. Gal 6:2) and strengthening each other in moments of trial and difficulty. 

Here, I would like to say a special word to my brother bishops. I like to think of our episcopal ministry in terms of closeness: our need to remain close to God in prayer, close to the faithful entrusted to our care, and close to our priests. Be particularly close to your priests. Let them not see you as only an administrator or manager, but as true fathers, concerned for their welfare, ready to offer them support and encouragement with an open heart. Accompany them with your prayer, your time, your appreciation for their work and your efforts to guide their growth. In this way, you will be for your priests a visible sign and model of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and gives his life for them (cf. Jn 10:14-15). 

Dear priests, men and women religious, catechists, seminarians preparing for future ministry: all of you have heard the voice of the Lord in your hearts and like the young Samuel you have answered, “Here I am” (1 Sam 3:4). May that response, which I invite you to renew daily, lead each of you to share the Good News with courage and zeal, living and walking always in the light of the word of God that we have the gift and responsibility to proclaim. We know that our service necessarily has an administrative component, but that does not mean we should spend all our time in meetings or behind a desk. It is important to go out among our flock and offer the gift of our presence and accompaniment to the faithful in our cities and villages. I think especially of those who risk being left behind: the young, the elderly, the sick and the poor. When we serve our neighbours with dedication, as you are doing, in a spirit of compassion, humility, kindness and love, we are really serving Jesus, as he himself told us (cf. Mt 25:40). And by serving Jesus in others, we discover true joy. Never step back from the holy people of God into which you were born. Remember your mothers and grandmothers, who, as St. Paul says, raised you in the faith (cf. 2 Tim 1:5). Be pastors, servants of the people, not civil servants, clerics of the state. Ever a part of the people of God, never apart, as though you were a privileged class. Do not renounce that noble lineage which is the holy people of God. 

Let me mention once more our brothers and sisters who died in the terrorist attack in this Cathedral some ten years ago and whose cause for beatification is underway. Their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings (cf. Fratelli tutti, 285). I also want to remember all the victims of violence and persecution, regardless of the religious group to which they belong. Tomorrow, in Ur, I will meet with the leaders of the religious traditions present in this country, in order to proclaim once again our conviction that religion must serve the cause of peace and unity among all God’s children. This evening I want to thank you for your efforts to be peacemakers, within your communities and with believers of other religious traditions, sowing seeds of reconciliation and fraternal coexistence that can lead to a rebirth of hope for everyone. 



Here I think especially of the young. Young people everywhere are a sign of promise and hope, but particularly in this country. Here you have not only priceless archeological treasures, but also inestimable treasure for the future: the young! Young people are your treasure; they need you to care for them, to nurture their dreams, to accompany their growth and to foster their hope. Even though they are young, their patience has already been sorely tried by the conflicts of these years. Yet let us never forget that, together with the elderly, who are the point of the diamond in this country, they are the richest fruit of the tree. It is up to us to cultivate their growth in goodness and to nurture them with hope. 

Brothers and sisters: first through your baptism and confirmation, and later through your ordination or religious profession, you were consecrated to the Lord and sent forth to be missionary disciples in this land so closely linked to the history of salvation. You are part of this history, faithfully bearing witness to God’s never-failing promises as you strive to build a new future. May your witness, matured through adversity and strengthened by the blood of martyrs, be a shining light in Iraq and beyond in order to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and to make the spirit of this people rejoice in God our Saviour (cf. Lk 1:46-47). 

Once again I am grateful that we have been able to be together. May Our Lady of Salvation and the Apostle St. Thomas intercede for you and protect you always. I cordially bless you and your communities. And I ask you, please, to pray for me. Thank you! 

Pope Francis meets Iraqi Catholics in church where 48 died in 2010 terrorist attack

Rome Newsroom, Mar 5, 2021 / 08:17 am (CNA).- Pope Francis met Iraqi Catholic leaders in Baghdad on Friday, in a cathedral where 48 people were martyred during a 2010 terrorist attack.

The March 5 meeting with bishops, priests, religious, seminarians, and lay catechists took place inside the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.

The pope spoke to the Church leaders on the first day of his historic three-day trip to Iraq, praising them for their faithful witness to Christ amid years of adversity.

“May your witness, matured through adversity and strengthened by the blood of martyrs, be a shining light in Iraq and beyond, in order to proclaim the greatness of the Lord and to make the spirit of this people rejoice in God our Savior,” he said.



Pope Francis is in Iraq March 5-8 on a trip intended to strengthen the hope of the country’s persecuted Christian minority and foster fraternity and interreligious dialogue.

In just over three days, Francis will travel 900 miles within Iraq, meeting with political leaders, prominent Muslim clerics, and Christian communities. He is the first pope in history to visit the Middle Eastern country.

On his flight from Rome to Baghdad, Pope Francis called the journey “emblematic” and said “it is a duty to the land that has been martyred for so many years.” 

After landing just before noon local time, he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi at the airport before visiting Iraqi President Barham Salih at the presidential palace, where he addressed civil authorities. 

In the afternoon, Francis met around 100 local Catholic leaders, including Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph Younan and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako, at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation.



The cathedral, also known as Sayidat al-Nejat, was the site of a 2010 suicide attack by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq.

At an evening Mass on Oct. 31, 2010, six terrorists entered and seized the church, killing two priests and taking more than 100 hostages. During the four-hour attack, the militants massacred the Christians inside the church, firing guns, tossing grenades, and detonating explosives strapped to their chests.

Fifty-two people died before Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service stormed the church with the support of U.S. forces.

The attack at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation remains one of the single deadliest assaults against Christians in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003.

Already in 2010, four years before the invasion of Iraq by the Islamic State, almost half of the beleaguered Christian population had already fled the war’s sectarian violence and persecution.

The beatification causes of the 48 Catholics who died inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in 2010 advanced from the diocesan phase to the Vatican in October 2019. 

When the cathedral was restored after the attack, a red carpet was placed down the center aisle in memory of the blood shed at the site.  

In his speech in the cathedral on March 5, Pope Francis recalled the men and women who died in the attack over 10 years ago. 

“We are gathered in this Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, hallowed by the blood of our brothers and sisters who here paid the ultimate price of their fidelity to the Lord and his Church,” he said.

“May the memory of their sacrifice inspire us to renew our own trust in the power of the cross and its saving message of forgiveness, reconciliation and rebirth.”

Remembering all victims of violence and persecution, regardless of religion, he said that the deaths of the 48 Servants of God killed in 2010 were “a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings.”

“For Christians are called to bear witness to the love of Christ in every time and place,” he continued. “This is the Gospel that must be proclaimed and embodied in this beloved country as well.”



Pope Francis encouraged Iraqi clerics, religious, and lay leaders in the “daunting pastoral challenges” they faced daily. 

“All of you share in the joys and sufferings, the hopes and anxieties of Christ’s faithful,” he said.

Despite the additional difficulties caused by the pandemic, he said that what “must never be locked down or reduced, however, is our apostolic zeal, drawn in your case from ancient roots, from the unbroken presence of the Church in these lands since earliest times.”

“Hardships are part of the daily experience of the Iraqi faithful,” the pope acknowledged. “In recent decades, you and your fellow citizens have had to deal with the effects of war and persecution, the fragility of basic infrastructures and the ongoing struggle for economic and personal security that has frequently led to internal displacements and the migration of many people, including Christians, to other parts of the world.”

He thanked the priests and bishops for being close to their people and being peacemakers.

“The educational and charitable apostolates of your local Churches represent a rich resource for the life of both the ecclesial community and the larger society,” he said. “I encourage you to persevere in these efforts, in order to ensure that Iraq’s Catholic community, though small like a mustard seed, continues to enrich the life of society as a whole.”

Francis urged them to foster unity and fraternity among the different Christian churches in Iraq, and to be “pastors, servants of the people, not civil servants, clerics of the state.”

According to the pope, the young people in Iraq are an “inestimable treasure for the future” and they “need you to care for them, to nurture their dreams, to accompany their growth and to foster their hope.”

“It is up to us to cultivate their growth in goodness and to nurture them with hope,” he said.

More than 90% of Poles identify as Catholics despite increasing secularization

CNA Staff, Mar 5, 2021 / 08:00 am (CNA).- More than 90% of Poles identify as Catholics despite increasing secularization, according to a report published on Friday.

The “Church in Poland” report, issued March 5 by the Catholic Information Agency (KAI), said that 91.9% of Poles described themselves as members of the Church. It found that 36.9% of Catholics regularly attended Mass. 

A little more than 3% of Poles described themselves as having no faith, while 0.9% identified as Orthodox Christians.

The report also highlighted worrying trends for the Catholic Church in Poland, noting that religious practice among young people had halved in almost 30 years. 

The report said that the number of Poles expressing support for the Church’s moral teaching -- especially on sexual ethics -- had also declined. Only 20% of Catholics said that they considered premarital cohabitation to be morally wrong.

The number of people expressing esteem for the Church fell to 41% in December 2020, though it rose slightly to 46% in January 2021.

A summary of the report provided by the Polish bishops’ conference said that the coronavirus crisis had “highlighted the process of weakening of collective religious practices and ties with the parish already underway in recent decades.” But it had also strengthened “family ties and religiosity.” 

The report said that the Polish Church had two cardinals, 29 archbishops, 123 bishops, 33,600 priests, and around 19,000 religious sisters.

There were 2,556 seminarians in 2020. In the academic year 2020-2021, 438 new candidates for the priesthood are in formation. Of these, 289 are in diocesan seminaries and 149 in religious orders, notably the Dominicans. 

There are 1,883 Polish missionaries worldwide, serving in 99 countries on five continents.

There are 1,050 Catholic shrines in Poland, of which 793 are Marian. The most popular is Jasna Góra Monastery, home to the icon of Our Lady of Częstochowa, which welcomed 4.4 million pilgrims in 2019, including 133,000 on foot.

The Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, linked to the apparitions of Jesus to St. Faustina Kowalska, receives about two million pilgrims from 90 countries.