Last weekend, perhaps overshadowed by the media coverage given to Oprah Winfrey’s interview of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Pope Francis made a historic pilgrimage to Iraq, becoming the first pope to visit that country. The images from the visit are remarkable, especially the Holy Father’s visit of the city of Mosul. Mosul is the second-largest city in Iraq, and was the place where the leaders of the Islamic State declared the establishment of a caliphate in June 2014. Mosul still shows the terrible damage caused by the battle to re-take the city from ISIS, who terrorized the inhabitants of the city for three years before they were defeated in July 2017. While following the reporting on the pope’s pilgrimage, I came across an article that juxtaposed a photo of ISIS graffiti on a wall in Mosul that threatened to abduct the pope and behead him, with a photo of the Holy Father standing amidst the rubble of the old city and waving to the crowds that had come to welcome him.
During a press conference in which he shared his experience of the Apostolic Journey to Iraq, Pope Francis spoke of a meeting he had with a woman who lost her son during the battle to liberate the region from ISIS. She told him: “Our strength undoubtedly comes from our faith in the Resurrection, a source of hope. My faith tells me that my children are in the arms of Jesus Christ, Our Lord. And we, the survivors, try to forgive the aggressor, because our Master Jesus has forgiven His executioners. By imitating Him in our sufferings, we testify that love is stronger than everything.” The grand event of the pope’s Apostolic Visit to Iraq revealed what otherwise would have been the hidden witness of the fidelity of the Christian community in Iraq, and their desire to worship the Lord Jesus and imitate His example. “Today,” said the pope, “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.” This was, I think, the greatest grace given to the Church by the pope’s trip.
The image of the Holy Father standing as the Vicar of Christ in the ruins of Mosul made me think of another dramatic image from almost exactly a year ago, when he presided over Benediction in a dark, empty, rainy St. Peter’s Square. At that point the pandemic was in its early stages. Now, 12 months later, there is a palpable sense that the worst days of the pandemic are firmly behind us. The ordeal we’ve experienced does not compare to the suffering of the people of Iraq, but we too must think about the rebuilding of our community post-pandemic. In his final homily of the trip to Iraq, the Holy Father echoed the words of the Iraqi woman, saying: “The Lord promises us that, by the power of the resurrection, he can raise us, and our communities from the ruins left by injustice, division, and hatred. That is the promise we celebrate in this Eucharist.” In the Eucharist, he continued, “we recognize the presence of the crucified and risen Lord in our midst. And we learn to embrace His liberating wisdom, to rest in His wounds, and to find healing and strength to serve the coming of His kingdom in our world. By His wounds, we have been healed (cf. 1 Peter 2:24).” As we move forward, Christ Jesus must be at the heart of all that we do as a parish family – Christ in the Eucharist, in the confessional, in our neighbor. To that end, it is time for the faithful to prayerfully consider returning to regular in person attendance at Sunday Mass, and to encourage others to come back too. We need the strength that the Lord offers us through the Most Blessed Sacrament, and the healing that comes from life together as the Church, so that we might emerge from the ruins into a time of authentic renewal.