The composition of this sad scene is something an accomplished painter might have conceived.
The interior of the ransacked church is edged in darkness, but a dim, natural light shines on the toppled altar and broken pieces of marble at Mary’s feet, in the center of the frame. The statue’s hand-less arms are outstretched, as if to say, “See what they've done,” but our attention is drawn to the empty space where Mary’s head ought to be. To the right of the statue, we see that same emptiness written on the face of St. Addai’s speechless pastor, who looks toward the camera.
What now?, we can imagine him thinking just then. Where does one even begin to rebuild after such loss?
But as “Francis in Iraq” goes on to show, Karamless is rebuilt, thanks in no small measure to Rasche’s close friend and collaborator, the late Andrew Walther, to whom the film is dedicated.
It was Walther, then vice president of communications and strategic development for the Knights of Columbus, who helped engineer a $2 million donation from the Knights to get the town’s reconstruction underway. Walther later served as president of EWTN News prior to his unexpected death in 2020 at age 45.
It’s that rebuilding process, both material and spiritual, that is the chief concern of Rasche’s documentary. News of the pope’s visit arrives in the midst of this years-long struggle, a tangible sign that the heroic witness of these courageous Christians hasn’t been ignored.
Pope Francis’ words at the joyous Mass in Erbil provided further affirmation: “Today, 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.”
Iraqi Christians 'are still there'
“Francis in Iraq” premiered on March 22 at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in New York City. Rasche attended the event, co-sponsored by the National Review Institute, along with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, the Holy See’s permanent observer at the United Nations, and Walther’s wife, Maureen Walther.
In his remarks prior to the film’s showing, Dolan noted that though the world’s attention is rightly focused on the war in Ukraine, the plight of innocent people in other parts of the world who are persecuted for their faith must not be overlooked. He said the film shows Pope Francis bringing the Gospel message and the "healing balm" of Jesus' mercy to one of those places.
Caccia, in his remarks, couched Francis’ visit to Iraq in the broader themes of his pontificate: “genuine fraternity,” peaceful co-existence, mercy, and forgiveness.
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“Pope Francis went to Iraq to praise, comfort, and strengthen the Iraqis who are giving true brotherhood a chance. He went to focus the attention of the world on their many needs,” the archbishop said.
“But he was also hoping that the challenging lessons he was giving there, as he stood amid the skeletons of buildings, dangling concrete staircases, and treasured ancient churches, would be learned by people everywhere.”
In a question-and-answer session after the film moderated by Kathryn Jean Lopez, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, Rasche described how the documentary project evolved over the course of six years.
“You know, when we first started going into the towns, there was just a very small crew of us, it was usually no more than two or three priests, and then myself. And it was a very difficult thing, sometimes, to be there, and be the person that needed to document what was going on,” he recalled.
Once the shock of what they were witnessing subsided, Rasche and his crew recognized they had a responsibility to share the story of the faith and resiliency of these little-known Christians.
“With the situation of the statue of Mary, I remember that day very clearly,” Rasche said.