We now know just how far Pope Francis is willing to go on behalf of a beleaguered Christian community that has endured much suffering and displacement in its recent history.
After being grounded at the Vatican for the past year, the pontiff’s pastoral visit to Iraq last weekend brought comfort and relief to a people still facing insecurity and an uncertain future. He walked among crowds formed to greet him even as Covid-19 continues to plague the Middle East country.
The fallout from the coronavirus was no small consideration for the Holy Father, but it ultimately did not deter him from making the journey. Speaking with journalists on the plane ride back to Rome, Pope Francis said he had “thought so much, prayed so much” about the Iraq trip because of the coronavirus pandemic, “and in the end I made the decision freely, but it came from within.”
“And I said to myself the One who helped me decide this will take care of the people.”
We depend on Catholic News Service to be our eyes and ears on the ground and in the air during these foreign trips. Its reporters and photographers are part of the media contingent that travels with Pope Francis to bring news from across the globe to New York. There are perils to their work on behalf of clients, including Catholic New York, which we don’t take for granted, especially on a trip like this recent one.
We did our best to stay with the developing story last weekend on our website, cny.org, and continue to hit the high points, of which there were many, in this issue.
Pope Francis has been a pilgrim pope throughout his eight-year pontificate. New Yorkers know that first-hand from the visit he made to the United States and Cuba back in September 2015, when he electrified crowds throughout the archdiocese. His visits haven’t only been to major metropolises but also to other more out of the way lands. I’m thinking of World Youth Day in Panama City, Panama, in 2019, and his visit to migrants on the island of Lampedusa off Italy’s coast a few months after his election as pope in 2013.
It was clear that this visit to Iraq, where he visited six cities over 900 miles March 5-8, was close to his heart. Other popes have hoped to visit, but the trips never came off until now.
It may have been the will of Pope Francis, and some might even call it stubbornness. At age 84, the pilgrim pope held an interreligious meeting near the ancient city of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, who is recognized as the patriarch of monotheistic faith by Christians, Jews and Muslims.
He also walked, with halting steps, down a narrow alleyway to a private meeting in the home of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, where he thanked the Shiite Islam leader for speaking out “in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during recent violent times in Iraq.
On his first day in Iraq, the pope visited Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral in Baghdad, a Syriac Catholic Church where Islamic militants slaughtered 58 people in 2010. “Their deaths are a powerful reminder that inciting war, hateful attitudes, violence or the shedding of blood are incompatible with authentic religious teachings,” said Pope Francis in quoting his recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti.
Another enduring image from the visit is the one on our cover, which shows the pope praying with other religious leaders in a church square in Mosul against a backdrop of devastation, where bombs and bullets have pocked walls and left gaping holes in the city’s architecture.
Insecurity, threats and persecution are major reasons why the Christian population in this Middle Eastern country is flagging. Pope Francis clearly relished being among the members of his flock and others in Iraq to deliver a Lenten message of faith and penitence.
“Closeness to the people of God” is an essential part of being a priest, the pope said.