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.
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.”
At the end of Mass, as the sun lowered over the stadium, Archbishop Warda thanked the pope on behalf of Iraqi Christians.
He said: “Pope Francis, we know that Christ and you are with us. Your courage flows now into us. Then, we give our thanks to you for your prayers for the persecuted and the marginalized, here in Iraq and around the world.”
“We know that you have continued to pray for us through all our times of darkness. We know that through your prayers we were never forgotten. We know that through your prayers you continue to urge this broken world and this broken land to a time of peace, humility and prosperity, with dignity of life and purpose for all.”
“Finally, we give you thanks for the message of peace you have brought to Erbil and to all of Iraq. Your powerful message of brotherhood and forgiveness is a gift now to all the people of Iraq, which leaves us, everyone one of us in this land, with a lasting responsibility to bring continuing life to your message in our daily lives from this day forward. May God grant you safety in your travels. You will be forever in our prayers.”
Before giving the final blessing, the pope greeted Mar Gewargis III, Catholicos-Patriarch of the ancient Assyrian Church of the East, who lives in Erbil.
“Together with him I embrace the Christians of the various denominations, many of whom have shed their blood in this very land,” he said. “Yet our martyrs shine together like stars in the same sky! From there they call us to walk together, without hesitation, towards the fullness of unity.”
He continued: “In my time among you, I have heard voices of sorrow and loss, but also voices of hope and consolation. This was due in large part to that tireless charitable outreach made possible by the religious institutions of every confession, your local Churches and the various charitable organizations assisting the people of this country in the work of rebuilding and social rebirth.”
As he prepared to leave the stadium for Baghdad, where he will stay overnight before flying back to Rome on Monday, the pope said: “Now the time draws near for my return to Rome. Yet Iraq will always remain with me, in my heart. I ask all of you, dear brothers and sisters, to work together in unity for a future of peace and prosperity that leaves no one behind and discriminates against no one.”
“I assure you of my prayers for this beloved country. In a particular way, I pray that the members of the various religious communities, together with all men and women of goodwill, may work together to forge bonds of fraternity and solidarity in the service of the common good and of peace.”
This report includes photographs taken by Alejandro Bermudez/CNA and EWTN Correspondent Colm Flynn.