A cardinal said on Tuesday that Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq in March had a profound impact on the country.
Delivering his testimony at the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, Hungary, on Sept. 7, Cardinal Louis Raphaël Sako explained that the pope’s trip had changed the atmosphere in the Middle Eastern country.
“The pope touched the hearts of all Iraqis by his messages, especially Muslims. And now, something has changed in the streets, in the mass, the population,” he commented.
“Christians are proud of that and now they are very appreciated also.”
In his testimony at the Hungexpo Budapest Congress and Exhibition Center, the main congress venue, the 73-year-old leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church recalled the landmark meeting between the pope and Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
“I was with him to visit Ayatollah Sistani, the supreme Shiite authority. And the imam said something very important. He said: ‘You are Christians’ -- that means, Christians and the pope -- ‘You are a part of us, and we are a part of you. That means we are brothers.’”
Sako was speaking on the third day of the International Eucharistic Congress, which opened on Sept. 5 with a 1,000-strong choir and a Mass featuring First Communions.
The congress was originally scheduled to take place in 2020 but was postponed to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The week-long event will culminate on Sept. 12 with a closing Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square.
In his address, Cardinal Sako described the history and spirituality of the Chaldean Catholic Church, one of 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the Holy See.
The Church traces its roots to the Apostolic Era but took on its present historical form in the 16th century when members of the ancient Church of the East affirmed their communion with Rome.
The Church is overseen by a patriarchate based at the Cathedral of Mary Mother of Sorrows in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. It has more than 600,000 members living mainly in Iraq but also in diaspora communities around the world.
Sako said that the Chaldean Church had produced martyrs from its inception up to the present day.
“Martyrdom is the charisma/charm of the Chaldean Church because since its founding it has been through persecution by Persians, Muslim Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, and today by extremists like al-Qaida and ISIS,” he noted.
“In one night in 2014, 120,000 people left their homes without anything, with only their clothes. And we admire that no one left his faith. No one was converted to Islam just to stay at home and be protected. All of them they left their houses to go to other cities in Kurdistan.”
He continued: “Maybe you remember in 2010, in Baghdad, on Oct. 31, 48 people were killed during the Mass. And among them two young people, two young priests. They went to speak to the terrorists, saying: ‘You can take us. You can kill us. But let the others go out.’ They didn’t accept their proposal and they killed both of them. I have had them in the seminary, when I was rector of the seminary.”
Sako thanked the Hungarian government for helping Iraqi Christians through a program called Hungary Helps to restore houses, schools, and churches destroyed by ISIS in the Nineveh Plains.
He said that Teleskuf, a town in northern Iraq, was now known locally as “Bint al Majjar” (“The daughter of Hungary”) in recognition of the Hungarian role in its restoration.
In his testimony, Sako explained that Chaldean Catholic spirituality stressed the centrality of grace.
“It is very positive, nothing negative,” he said. “It is rare that we are speaking about mortification. Even our cross is empty, without body, because he is risen. And we call it ‘the glorious cross,’ and this is giving us a lot of hope during our persecutions.”
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Other speakers at the congress on Tuesday included Cardinal Gérald Lacroix of Quebec.
The Primate of Canada offered a catechesis on the Eucharist as “an inexhaustible source of peace and reconciliation.”
“Living our faith in communion with God is the foundation to a healthy Christian life,” he said. “But learning to live in communion with our brothers and sisters is unavoidable, indispensable, and, let’s face it, quite a challenge.”
“Participating in the Eucharist is not only to meet the Lord, to be with Him, it is also a school where we learn to love others, to be open to them. Without that, there is no true Christianity.”
In his testimony, Cardinal Sako reflected on the future of Iraq. He said that the only way to overcome the country’s internal divisions and protect minorities was to have “a strong secular civil state and real democracy similar to the one applied in most countries of the world.”
Concluding his address, he said: “This International Eucharistic Congress should be an opportunity for every Christian to deepen his incorporation into Christ, and then to strengthen communion and unity among them through their membership in the Church.”
“Each Eucharistic celebration is a celebration of the Last Supper and carries the meaning of sharing and being together. Let us complete our spiritual journey to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who will not leave us in darkness, but will shine with the light of His resurrection on us.”
He added: “I suggest that from this Eucharistic Congress, you can launch an appeal for peace and fraternity, to stop the voices of weapons and wars and killing each other. I think that will be also from the background of our faith, and the Eucharist.”
The morning ended with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop José S. Palma of Cebu, in the Philippines. The 71-year-old archbishop is the speaker who has traveled the greatest distance to attend the event, according to organizers.
Bishops in the Philippines had intended to send a delegation of 500 Catholics to Hungary, but instead opted to hold an online national Eucharistic congress in solidarity with the Budapest meeting.
In his homily, Palma said: “My dear brothers and sisters, we who have been blessed and satiated with the springs of God’s graces in the Eucharist are called henceforth to be conduits of peace to others.”
“Just like a spring that flows freely until it waters and fills every corner and space that it reaches, let us radiate God’s peace to all nations, to the ends of the earth wherever we find ourselves in.”
“May God’s peace be with us always as we go forth in fulfilling this mission. And may our Blessed Mother, the Queen of Peace, intercede for us all.”
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“When people are immersed in that for a weekend or for an evening or for a Eucharistic Congress, like you are going to have in Hungary, it's an experience that you keep going. And that happened here in Denver, no doubt,” recalled Chris Stefanick of Real Life Catholics, one of numerous lay apostolates that can trace their roots to WYD '93.