There was a joyous atmosphere at the Mass, with a small group from the Neocatechumenal Way at the back of the stadium leading festivities before the pope’s arrival.
The Prayer of the Faithful was said in Assyrian, Arabic, Kurdish, and English, in a sign of the diversity of Iraqi Christianity.
Reflecting on the day’s Gospel reading, the cleansing of the Temple (John 2:13-25), the pope said: “Jesus not only cleanses us of our sins, but gives us a share in his own power and wisdom. He liberates us from the narrow and divisive notions of family, faith and community that divide, oppose and exclude, so that we can build a Church and a society open to everyone and concerned for our brothers and sisters in greatest need.”
“At the same time, he strengthens us to resist the temptation to seek revenge, which only plunges us into a spiral of endless retaliation. In the power of the Holy Spirit, he sends us forth, not as proselytizers, but as missionary disciples, men and women called to testify to the life-changing power of the Gospel.”
The pope began his final full day in Iraq at the apostolic nunciature in Baghdad. He flew to Erbil, where he was welcomed by Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda, Syrian Catholic Archbishop Nizar Semaan, and the president and prime minister of the Kurdistan Region.
The pope then transferred by helicopter to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, where he offered prayers for victims of war.
Francis traveled on to Bakhdida, also known as Qaraqosh, where he met local Christians at the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
The pope had lunch at the Patriarchal Seminary of St. Peter in Erbil, leaving a wooden sculpture of St. Joseph as a gift. He arrived at the stadium to celebrate Mass around 4 p.m. local time and was driven past the congregation in a popemobile -- the vehicle’s only outing in Iraq -- surrounded by masked security guards.
Preparations for the Mass started early on Sunday morning, with 250 young volunteers buzzing around the altar, setting up signs for VIPs, and following instructions from enthusiastic priests.
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Eighteen-year-old Joseph told CNA: “This is an opportunity of a lifetime, to have the chance to work for the Holy Father coming to our land. I still can’t believe this is about to happen.”
Matilda, 16, said: “I feel we are following the Gospel, ‘what you got freely, give it freely,’ especially when we are doing it for a man of God like Pope Francis.”
Hannah, 17, commented: “I do believe that the pope’s visit will not be just a moment. This will be a source of hope for us, for young people, for everyone in Kurdistan.”
The Kurdistan Region has one of the lowest emigration rates in Iraq. But according to a source from the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, speaking to CNA on background, “migrants are disproportionately Christian and disproportionately young.”
While adjusting chairs for the choir, Sarah, 17, said: “I really hope the pope inspires our people to stay. But in any way, this experience will stay in our hearts and will be unforgettable.”
Joseph added: “I also hope our generation will stay. I really hope so.”