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Iraqi PM declares national day of tolerance in honor of papal meeting with top Shiite cleric

CNA Staff, Mar 6, 2021 / 02:10 pm (CNA).- Iraq’s prime minister on Saturday declared March 6 a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence in honor of Pope Francis’ landmark meeting with the country’s top Shiite cleric. 

Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi made the announcement via Twitter on March 6 after the meeting between the pope and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

“In celebration of the historic meeting in Najaf between Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Pope Francis, and the historic interreligious meeting in the ancient city of Ur, we declare March 6 a National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence in Iraq,” he wrote.

The pope visited the 90-year-old al-Sistani at his modest home in Najaf, the third holiest city for Shiite Muslims after Mecca and Medina.



Citing a religious official in Najaf, the Associated Press reported that al-Sistani broke with his custom of staying seated to receive visitors, rising to greet Francis at the door of the room where he holds private conversations with guests. The pope reportedly removed his shoes before entering the room.

A statement afterward from al-Sistani’s office said that the cleric affirmed that the country’s Christian citizens should, like all Iraqis, be able to live in security and peace, freely exercising their constitutional rights.  

After the meeting -- which marked a milestone in relations between the Catholic Church and Shiite Islam -- the pope traveled to the Plain of Ur, where he took part in an interreligious gathering.

Speaking at the ancient site, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, the pope emphasized the shared heritage of Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” he said March 6.

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion. We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.”

Full text: Pope Francis' homily at Mass in Baghdad's St. Joseph Cathedral

Baghdad, Iraq, Mar 6, 2021 / 09:25 am (CNA).- Here is the full prepared text of Pope Francis’ homily, delivered March 6, 2021, at a Mass in the Chaldean Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad, Iraq.

Today the word of God speaks to us of wisdom, witness and promises.

Wisdom in these lands has been cultivated since ancient times. Indeed the search for wisdom has always attracted men and women. Often, however, those with more means can acquire more knowledge and have greater opportunities, while those who have less are sidelined. Such inequality -- which has increased in our time -- is unacceptable. The Book of Wisdom surprises us by reversing this perspective. It tells us that “the lowliest may be pardoned in mercy, but the mighty will be mightily tested” (Wis 6:6). In the eyes of the world, those with less are discarded, while those with more are privileged. Not so for God: the more powerful are subjected to rigorous scrutiny, while the least are God’s privileged ones.

Jesus, who is Wisdom in person, completes this reversal in the Gospel, and he does so with his very first sermon, with the Beatitudes. The reversal is total: the poor, those who mourn, the persecuted are all called blessed. How is this possible? For the world, it is the rich, the powerful and the famous who are
blessed! It is those with wealth and means who count! But not for God: It is no longer the rich that are great, but the poor in spirit; not those who can impose their will on others, but those who are gentle with all. Not those acclaimed by the crowds, but those who show mercy to their brother and sisters. At this point, we may wonder: if I live as Jesus asks, what do I gain? Don’t I risk letting others lord it over me? Is Jesus’ invitation worthwhile, or a lost cause? That invitation is not worthless, but wise.

Jesus’ invitation is wise because love, which is the heart of the Beatitudes, even if it seems weak in the world’s eyes, in fact always triumphs. On the cross, it proved stronger than sin, in the tomb, it vanquished death. That same love made the martyrs victorious in their trials – and how many martyrs have there been in the last century, more even than in the past! Love is our strength, the source of strength for those of our brothers and sisters who here too have suffered prejudice and indignities, mistreatment and persecutions for the name of Jesus. Yet while the power, the glory and the vanity of the world pass away, love remains. As the Apostle Paul told us: “Love never ends” (1 Cor 13:8). To live a life shaped by the Beatitudes, then, is to make passing things eternal, to bring heaven to earth.

But how do we practice the Beatitudes? They do not ask us to do extraordinary things, feats beyond our abilities. They ask for daily witness. The blessed are those who live meekly, who show mercy wherever they happen to be, who are pure of heart wherever they live. To be blessed, we do not need to become occasional heroes, but to become witnesses day after day. Witness is the way to embody the wisdom of Jesus. That is how the world is changed: not by power and might, but by the Beatitudes. For that is what Jesus did: he lived to the end what he said from the beginning. Everything depends on bearing witness to the love of Jesus, that same charity which St. Paul magnificently describes in today’s second reading.
Let us see how he presents it.

First, Paul says that “love is patient” (v. 4). We were not expecting this adjective. Love seems synonymous with goodness, generosity and good works, yet Paul says that charity is above all patient. The Bible speaks first and foremost of God’s patience. Throughout history, men and women proved constantly unfaithful to the covenant with God, falling into the same old sins. Yet instead of growing weary and walking away, the Lord always remained faithful, forgave and began anew. This patience to begin anew each time is the first quality of love, because love is not irritable, but always starts over again. Love does not grow weary and despondent, but always presses ahead. It does not get discouraged, but stays creative. Faced with evil, it does not give up or surrender. Those who love do not close in on themselves when things go wrong, but respond to evil with good, mindful of the triumphant wisdom of the cross. God’s witnesses are like that: not passive or fatalistic, at the mercy of happenings, feelings or immediate events. Instead, they are constantly hopeful, because grounded in the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v. 7).

We can ask ourselves: how do we react to situations that are not right? In the face of adversity, there are always two temptations. The first is flight: we can run away, turn our backs, trying to keep aloof from it all. The second is to react with anger, with a show of force. Such was the case of the disciples in Gethsemane: in their bewilderment, many fled and Peter took up the sword. Yet neither flight nor the sword achieved anything. Jesus, on the other hand, changed history. How? With the humble power of love, with his patient witness. This is what we are called to do; and this is how God fulfils his promises.

Promises. The wisdom of Jesus, embodied in the Beatitudes, calls for witness and offers the reward contained in the divine promises. For each Beatitude is immediately followed by a promise: those who practice them will possess the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will be satisfied, they will see God… (cf. Mt 5: 3-12). God’s promises guarantee unrivalled joy and never disappoint. But how are they fulfilled? Through our weaknesses. God makes blessed those who travel the path of their inner poverty to the very end. This is the way; there is no other. Let us look to the patriarch Abraham. God promised him a great offspring, but he and Sarah are now elderly and childless. Yet it is precisely in their patient and faithful old age that God works wonders and gives them a son. Let us also look to Moses: God promises that he will free the people from slavery, and to do so he asks Moses to speak to Pharaoh. Even though Moses says he is not good with words, it is through his words that God will fulfil his promise. Let us look to Our Lady, who under the Law could not have a child, yet was called to become a mother. And let us look to Peter: he denies the Lord, yet he is the very one that Jesus calls to strengthen his brethren. Dear brothers and sisters, at times we may feel helpless and useless. We should never give in to this, because God wants to work wonders precisely through our weaknesses.

God loves to do that, and tonight, eight times, he has spoken to us the word ţūb’ā [blessed], in order to make us realize that, with him, we truly are “blessed”. Of course, we experience trials, and we frequently fall, but let us not forget that, with Jesus, we are blessed. Whatever the world takes from us is nothing compared to the tender and patient love with which the Lord fulfils his promises. Dear sister, dear brother, perhaps when you look at your hands they seem empty, perhaps you feel disheartened and unsatisfied by life. If so, do not be afraid: the Beatitudes are for you. For you who are afflicted, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are persecuted. The Lord promises you that your name is written on his heart, written in
heaven! Today I thank God with you and for you, because here, where wisdom arose in ancient times, so many witnesses have arisen in our own time, often overlooked by the news, yet precious in God’s eyes. Witnesses who, by living the Beatitudes, are helping God to fulfil his promises of peace.

Pope Francis to Chaldean Catholics: 'Love is our strength'

Rome Newsroom, Mar 6, 2021 / 08:55 am (CNA).- At Mass in Baghdad on Saturday, Pope Francis told Iraqi Christians that no matter what the world thinks, love is a strength, and it always triumphs over sin and evil.

Love, “even if it seems weak in the world’s eyes, in fact always triumphs,” the pope said March 6 at the Chaldean Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad.

“Love is our strength, the source of strength for those of our brothers and sisters who here too have suffered prejudice and indignities, mistreatment and persecutions for the name of Jesus. Yet while the power, the glory and the vanity of the world pass away, love remains,” he said.

“On the cross, it proved stronger than sin, in the tomb, it vanquished death,” Francis continued. “That same love made the martyrs victorious in their trials – and how many martyrs have there been in the last century, more even than in the past!”

Pope Francis said Mass at the Chaldean Catholic cathedral in Baghdad on the second day of a three-day visit to Iraq intended to strengthen the hope of the country’s persecuted Christian minority and foster fraternity and interreligious dialogue.

Francis is the first pope in history to visit the Middle Eastern country, fulfilling a hope of St. Pope John Paul II.

In his homily, the pope reflected on the promises of God, which he said “guarantee unrivalled joy and never disappoint.”

“At times we may feel helpless and useless. We should never give in to this,” he encouraged the Chaldeans, “because God wants to work wonders precisely through our weaknesses.”

Pope Francis said “of course, we experience trials, and we frequently fall, but let us not forget that, with Jesus, we are blessed. Whatever the world takes from us is nothing compared to the tender and patient love with which the Lord fulfils his promises.”

The Chaldeans are one of several Eastern Catholic communities found in Iraq. They trace their history to the early Christians through their connection with the Church of the East. Before the population was diminished by Islamic State violence, Chaldeans made up two-thirds of Iraqi Christians.

Pope Francis also made history March 6 by being the first pope to offer Mass in the Chaldean rite. The papal Mass was said in a mix of Italian, Arabic, and the Chaldean language, which is a dialect of Aramaic.

The Prayers of the Faithful were read in Arabic, Chaldean, Kurdish, Turkmen, and English.
“Perhaps when you look at your hands they seem empty, perhaps you feel disheartened and unsatisfied by life. If so, do not be afraid: the Beatitudes are for you,” the pope said.

“For you who are afflicted, who hunger and thirst for justice, who are persecuted. The Lord promises you that your name is written on his heart, written in heaven!” he stated.

“Today I thank God with you and for you, because here, where wisdom arose in ancient times, so many witnesses have arisen in our own time, often overlooked by the news, yet precious in God’s eyes,” he continued. “Witnesses who, by living the Beatitudes, are helping God to fulfil his promises of peace.”

St. Joseph Cathedral, called Mar Yousef, was constructed in the 1950s, and restored in 2018 by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako.

The cathedral can seat 400, but due to COVID-19 precautions, the Mass was limited to an attendance of 180 people.

In his homily, Francis encouraged Catholics to not try to be “occasional heroes, but to become witnesses day after day.”

“Witness is the way to embody the wisdom of Jesus. That is how the world is changed: not by power and might, but by the Beatitudes. For that is what Jesus did: he lived to the end what he said from the beginning.”

He pointed to the Scripture passage in 1 Corinthians 13, which says “love is patient,” to remind Catholics that though people throughout history have been unfaithful to the covenant with God, and have fallen into the “same old sins,” the “Lord always remained faithful.”

“This patience to begin anew each time is the first quality of love,” he emphasized, encouraging them to follow the Lord’s example.

God’s witnesses are “not passive or fatalistic, at the mercy of happenings, feelings or immediate events. Instead, they are constantly hopeful, because [they are] grounded in the love that ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,’” he said.

“We can ask ourselves: how do we react to situations that are not right?” Francis said, explaining that “in the face of adversity, there are always two temptations” -- flight or anger.

But these two approaches never fixed anything, he said. “Jesus, on the other hand, changed history. How? With the humble power of love, with his patient witness. This is what we are called to do; and this is how God fulfils his promises.”

Curial speculation follows papal meetings with bishops

Vatican City, Mar 6, 2021 / 08:10 am (CNA).- Sources have told CNA that Pope Francis may choose two US-born prelates as prefects of congregations in the Roman Curia.

The two are Blase Cardinal Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, and Bishop Robert Prevost of Chiclayo. Pope Francis had a private audience with Cardinal Cupich Jan. 30, while he met Bishop Prevost March 1.

The two audiences may be part of a series of meetings Pope Francis has in view of a general reshuffle of the top Curia officials. After the retirement of Robert Cardinal Sarah as prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of Sacraments, there are five congregations whose prefects have already reached and surpassed the retirement age of 75: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for the Clergy, the Congregation for the Bishops, the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, and the Congregation for Catholic Education.

In particular, Pope Francis carefully takes care of the new appointments at the Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation for the Clergy.

The Congregation for the Bishops establishes the new dioceses and ecclesiastical provinces and regions and the military ordinariates. The congregation also takes part in the procedure of selection and appointment of the new bishops and apostolic administrators and their coadjutor and auxiliary bishops. The congregation also watches out the dioceses' government, and organizes ad limina visits.

The Congregation for the Clergy offers assistance to the bishops in issues regarding priests and deacons of the secular clergy. It promotes religious education, and it issues norms for catechetical formation.

Currently, the Congregation for the Bishops is lead by Marc Cardinal Ouellet. Cardinal Ouellet is 76, and has led the congregation since 2010.

The Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy is Beniamino Cardinal Stella, 79, who has been at the congregation's helm since 2013.

Both of these positions could be assigned to American-born prelates.

Cardinal Cupich is considered a top candidate to become prefect of the bishops' congregation, while Bishop Prevost might be appointed in Chicago as his successor.

However, the most recent information might suggest a different scenario. Cardinal Cupich could be placed at the helm of the Congregation for the Clergy to replace Cardinal Stella.

If Cardinal Cupich were appointed at the Congregation for the Clergy, who would take the responsibility of the Congregation for the Bishops? It seems that Bishop Prevost could make it and that the pope asked availability from him to be appointed in Rome during the March 1 audience.

Bishop Prevost, 65, a canon lawyer and a member of the Order of St. Augustine, is a member of the  Congregation for Bishops and the Congregation of the Clergy; a particular choice, since Bishop Prevost is neither a metropolitan nor a cardinal.

If Pope Francis appoints both Cardinal Cupich and Bishop Prevost at the heads of congregations, the U.S. presence in the Roman Curia will be significant. Under Pope Francis, there have not been American prelates appointed at top-ranking positions so far, if we exclude Kevin Cardinal Farrell, an Irishman whose episcopal career was spent in the United States.

Pope Francis' rationale is not that of the "quota" per country in the Roman Curia. One Vatican source explained to CNA that the Pope "has a clear design in his mind, but he is likely confusing the cards in view of his final decisions."

For this reason, Pope Francis is "asking to some of his chosen one's availability to be appointed to a Vatican position," but it does not mean that "these people will cut the end."

It is noteworthy that Pope Francis also received in a personal audience on Jan. 14 Bishop Vittorio Francesco Viola, of Tortona, who according to an informed source is among the three top candidates to replace Cardinal Sarah as prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Pope Francis intends to end his days in Rome, not Argentina, journalist clarifies

ACI Prensa Staff, Mar 6, 2021 / 07:19 am (CNA).- As some international media recently reported that Pope Francis said he did not want to visit his native Argentina again, the author of the interview with the Holy Father that was the source of that assumption clarified the context and meaning of the pope’s words.

Veteran Argentine journalist and neurologist Nelson Castro interviewed Pope Francis for his book "The Health of the Popes”.

Argentine daily La Nación published a piece by Castro Feb. 27 that included a section of his interview with the pope. The last sentence is: “I won’t return to Argentina,” which led some to assume that meant “ever.”

At the end of the interview for his book about the health of popes, Castro asked Francis “how do you imagine your death?” to which he replied “I will be pope, whether in office or emeritus. And in Rome. I won’t return to Argentina.”

In a recent interview with fellow journalist Tito Garabal on Radio Grote, Castro clarified that Pope Francis said that he would not return to Argentina "as far as coming to live (in Argentina) if he resigned, that’s how it was."

"He didn’t say 'I’m not going to visit Argentina again.' I asked him how he imagines his death in Rome and so on, he said, ‘I’m not going back to Argentina to die.’”

“This is indisputable as such. And it has two aspects: as the interview is verbatim then one wants to be as faithful as possible, so much so, and I anticipate this, that when the second edition of the book and translation come out, I’m going to introduce this clarification, because it’s called for," Castro explained.

Full text: Pope Francis’ address at an interreligious meeting in the Plain of Ur

Ur, Iraq, Mar 6, 2021 / 03:25 am (CNA).- Here is the full prepared text of Pope Francis’ address at an interreligious meeting, delivered March 6, 2021, in the Plain of Ur, Iraq.

Dear brothers and sisters, This blessed place brings us back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions. Here, where Abraham our father lived, we seem to have returned home. It was here that Abraham heard God’s call; it was from here that he set out on a journey that would change history. We are the fruits of that call and that journey. God asked Abraham to raise his eyes to heaven and to count its stars (cf. Gen 15:5). In those stars, he saw the promise of his descendants; he saw us. Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look up to heaven and we journey on earth.

1. We look up to heaven. Thousands of years later, as we look up to the same sky, those same stars appear. They illumine the darkest nights because they shine together. Heaven thus imparts a message of unity: the Almighty above invites us never to separate ourselves from our neighbors. The otherness of God points us towards others, towards our brothers and sisters. Yet if we want to preserve fraternity, we must not lose sight of heaven. May we -- the descendants of Abraham and the representatives of different religions -- sense that, above all, we have this role: to help our brothers and sisters to raise their eyes and prayers to heaven. We all need this because we are not self-sufficient. Man is not omnipotent; we cannot make it on our own. If we exclude God, we end up worshiping the things of this earth. Worldly goods, which lead so many people to be unconcerned with God and others, are not the reason why we journey on earth. We raise our eyes to heaven in order to raise ourselves from the depths of our vanity; we serve God in order to be set free from enslavement to our egos, because God urges us to love. This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor. In today’s world, which often forgets or presents distorted images of the Most High, believers are called to bear witness to his goodness, to show his paternity through our fraternity.

From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion. We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings. Let us not allow the light of heaven to be overshadowed by the clouds of hatred! Dark clouds of terrorism, war and violence have gathered over this country. All its ethnic and religious communities have suffered. In particular, I would like to mention the Yazidi community, which has mourned the deaths of many men and witnessed thousands of women, girls and children kidnapped, sold as slaves, subjected to physical violence and forced conversions. Today, let us pray for those who have endured these sufferings, for those who are still dispersed and abducted, that they may soon return home. And let us pray that freedom of conscience and freedom of religion will everywhere be recognized and  respected; these are fundamental rights, because they make us free to contemplate the heaven for which we were created.

When terrorism invaded the north of this beloved country, it wantonly destroyed part of its magnificent religious heritage, including the churches, monasteries and places of worship of various communities. Yet, even at that dark time, some stars kept shining. I think of the young Muslim volunteers of Mosul, who helped to repair churches and monasteries, building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and those Christians and Muslims who today are restoring mosques and churches together. Professor Ali Thajeel spoke too of the return of pilgrims to this city. It is important to make pilgrimages to holy places, for it is the most beautiful sign on earth of our yearning for heaven. To love and protect holy places, therefore, is an existential necessity, in memory of our father Abraham, who in various places raised to heaven altars of the Lord (cf. Gen 12:7.8; 13:18; 22:9). May the great Patriarch help us to make our respective sacred places oases of peace and encounter for all! By his fidelity to God, Abraham became a blessing for all peoples (cf. Gen 12:3); may our presence here today, in his footsteps, be a sign of blessing and hope for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world. Heaven has not grown weary of the earth: God loves every people, every one of his daughters and sons! Let us never tire of looking up to heaven, of looking up to those same stars that, in his day, our father Abraham contemplated.



2. We journey on earth. For Abraham, looking up to heaven, rather than being a distraction, was an incentive to journey on earth, to set out on a path that, through his descendants, would lead to every time and place. It all started from here, with the Lord who brought him forth from Ur (cf. Gen 15:7). His was a journey outwards, one that involved sacrifices. Abraham had to leave his land, home and family. Yet by giving up his own family, he became the father of a family of peoples. Something similar also happens to us: on our own journey, we are called to leave behind those ties and attachments that, by keeping us enclosed in our own groups, prevent us from welcoming God’s boundless love and from seeing others as our brothers and sisters. We need to move beyond ourselves, because we need one another. The pandemic has made us realize that “no one is saved alone” (Fratelli tutti, 54). Still, the temptation to withdraw from others is never-ending, yet at the same time we know that “the notion of ‘every man for himself’ will rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic” (ibid., 36). Amid the tempests we are currently experiencing, such isolation will not save us. Nor will an arms race or the erection of walls that will only make us all the more distant and aggressive. Nor the idolatry of money, for it closes us in on ourselves and creates chasms of inequality that engulf humanity. Nor can we be saved by consumerism, which numbs the mind and deadens the heart.

The way that heaven points out for our journey is another: the way of peace. It demands, especially amid the tempest, that we row together on the same side. It is shameful that, while all of us have suffered from the crisis of the pandemic, especially here, where conflicts have caused so much suffering, anyone should be concerned simply for his own affairs. There will be no peace without sharing and acceptance, without a justice that ensures equity and advancement for all, beginning with those most vulnerable. There will be no peace unless peoples extend a hand to other peoples. There will be no peace as long as we see others as them and not us. There will be no peace as long as our alliances are against others, for alliances of some against others only increase divisions. Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity. Let us ask for this in praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighboring war-torn Syria.

The Patriarch Abraham, who today brings us together in unity, was a prophet of the Most High. An ancient prophecy says that the peoples “shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Is 2:4). This prophecy has not been fulfilled; on the contrary, swords and spears have turned into missiles and bombs. From where, then, can the journey of peace begin? From the decision not to have enemies. Anyone with the courage to look at the stars, anyone who believes in God, has no enemies to fight. He or she has only one enemy to face, an enemy that stands at the door of the heart and knocks to enter. That enemy is hatred. While some try to have enemies more than to be friends, while many seek their own profit at the expense of others, those who look at the stars of the promise, those who follow the ways of God, cannot be against someone, but for everyone. They cannot justify any form of imposition, oppression and abuse of power; they cannot adopt an attitude of belligerence.

Dear friends, is all this possible? Father Abraham, who was able to hope against all hope (cf. Rom 4:18), encourages us. Throughout history, we have frequently pursued goals that are overly worldly and journeyed on our own, but with the help of God, we can change for the better. It is up to us, today’s humanity, especially those of us, believers of all religions, to turn instruments of hatred into instruments of peace. It is up to us to appeal firmly to the leaders of nations to make the increasing proliferation of arms give way to the distribution of food for all. It is up to us to silence mutual accusations in order to make heard the cry of the oppressed and discarded in our world: all too many people lack food, medicine, education, rights and dignity! It is up to us to shed light on the shady maneuvers that revolve around money and to demand that money not end up always and only reinforcing the unbridled luxury of a few. It is up to us preserve our common home from our predatory aims. It is up to us to remind the world that human life has value for what it is and not for what it has. That the lives of the unborn, the elderly, migrants and men and women, whatever the colour of their skin or their nationality, are always sacred and count as much as the lives of everyone else! It is up to us to have the courage to lift up our eyes and look at the stars, the stars that our father Abraham saw, the stars of the promise.



The journey of Abraham was a blessing of peace. Yet it was not easy: he had to face struggles and unforeseen events. We too have a rough journey ahead, but like the great Patriarch, we need to take concrete steps, to set out and seek the face of others, to share memories, gazes and silences, stories and experiences. I was struck by the testimony of Dawood and Hasan, a Christian and a Muslim who, undaunted by the differences between them, studied and worked together. Together they built the future and realized that they are brothers. In order to move forward, we too need to achieve something good and something concrete together. This is the way, especially for young people, who must not see their dreams cut short by the conflicts of the past! It is urgent to teach them fraternity, to teach them to look at the stars. This is a real emergency; it will be the most effective vaccine for a future of peace. For you, dear young people, are our present and our future!

Only with others can the wounds of the past be healed. Rafah told us of the heroic example of Najy, from the Sabean Mandean community, who lost his life in an attempt to save the family of his Muslim neighbor. How many people here, amid the silence and indifference of the world, have embarked upon journeys of fraternity! Rafah also told us of the unspeakable sufferings of the war that forced many to abandon home and country in search of a future for their children. Thank you, Rafah, for having shared with us your firm determination to stay here, in the land of your fathers. May those who were unable to do so, and had to flee, find a kindly welcome, befitting those who are vulnerable and suffering.

It was precisely through hospitality, a distinctive feature of these lands, that Abraham was visited by God and given the gift of a son, when it seemed that all hope was past (cf. Gen 18:1-10). Brothers and sisters of different religions, here we find ourselves at home, and from here, together, we wish to commit ourselves to fulfilling God’s dream that the human family may become hospitable and welcoming to all his children; that looking up to the same heaven, it will journey in peace on the same earth. 

Photographs in text courtesy of Vatican Media.

Pope Francis appeals for interreligious harmony at birthplace of Abraham

CNA Staff, Mar 6, 2021 / 03:15 am (CNA).- Pope Francis on Saturday appealed for harmony among the followers of the world’s major monotheistic religions at an interreligious meeting in the Plain of Ur, southern Iraq.

Speaking at the ancient site, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, the pope emphasized the shared heritage of Christians, Muslims and Jews.

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” he said March 6.

“Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion. We believers cannot be silent when terrorism abuses religion; indeed, we are called unambiguously to dispel all misunderstandings.”



The Bible names Abraham’s birthplace as Ur Kaśdim (translated as Ur of the Chaldeans), leading scholars to identify the southern Iraqi city as the location of his birth. 

“This blessed place brings us back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions. Here, where Abraham our father lived, we seem to have returned home,” the pope said, seated in a white chair on a windswept stage.

“It was here that Abraham heard God’s call; it was from here that he set out on a journey that would change history. We are the fruits of that call and that journey. God asked Abraham to raise his eyes to heaven and to count its stars. In those stars, he saw the promise of his descendants; he saw us.”

“Today we, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with our brothers and sisters of other religions, honor our father Abraham by doing as he did: we look up to heaven and we journey on earth.”

Ur was once a thriving Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia. The partially restored Ziggurat of Ur, visible during the pope’s live-streamed address, testifies to its storied history. The temple was built in the 21st century BC in honor of the Sumerian moon god and its ruins were excavated from the 1920s onwards.

The interreligious meeting began at 11:10 a.m. local time with an opening song. Readings from the Book of Genesis and the Koran were then sung. 

Four people offered their testimonies: two young people, a female adherent of Mandaeism, a monotheistic Gnostic religion native to southern Mesopotamia, and a Shiite Muslim professor.

The two youths -- Dawood Ara, a Christian, and Hasan Salim, a Muslim -- work together part-time at a clothing store in Basra to fund their studies.

“Although Dawood and me are not of the same religion, our story shows that we can work together and that we can be friends,” Salim said.

Rafah Husein Baher, an Iraqi Sabean Mandean, told the story of her co-religionist Najy, who lost his life trying to save his Muslim neighbor’s family.



Ali Zghair Thajeel, a professor at the University of Nassiriya, spoke of his efforts to promote pilgrimages to Ur, a city “mentioned in the Holy Bible, the Holy Koran and most of the Divine books.” 

Pope Francis then spoke, focusing on the importance of fraternity among “the descendants of Abraham.”

He said: “May we -- the descendants of Abraham and the representatives of different religions -- sense that, above all, we have this role: to help our brothers and sisters to raise their eyes and prayers to heaven.”

He continued: “We raise our eyes to heaven in order to raise ourselves from the depths of our vanity; we serve God in order to be set free from enslavement to our egos, because God urges us to love. This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor.”

In visiting Ur, Pope Francis fulfilled a dream of Pope John Paul II, who hoped to mark the turn of the millennium with a journey “in the footsteps of Abraham.” But the Polish pope was unable to travel to Ur.

In his address, Francis highlighted examples of interreligious cooperation amid the turbulence of 21st-century Iraq. 



He said: “When terrorism invaded the north of this beloved country, it wantonly destroyed part of its magnificent religious heritage, including the churches, monasteries and places of worship of various communities.” 

“Yet, even at that dark time, some stars kept shining. I think of the young Muslim volunteers of Mosul, who helped to repair churches and monasteries, building fraternal friendships on the rubble of hatred, and those Christians and Muslims who today are restoring mosques and churches together.” 

The pope described Abraham’s life story as a “journey outwards.” He said that all believers were required to take a similar path.

Quoting from his latest encyclical, Fratelli tutti, he said: “Still, the temptation to withdraw from others is never-ending, yet at the same time we know that ‘the notion of “every man for himself” will rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic.’”  

“Amid the tempests we are currently experiencing, such isolation will not save us. Nor will an arms race or the erection of walls that will only make us all the more distant and aggressive. Nor the idolatry of money, for it closes us in on ourselves and creates chasms of inequality that engulf humanity. Nor can we be saved by consumerism, which numbs the mind and deadens the heart.”



The pope continued: “There will be no peace unless peoples extend a hand to other peoples. There will be no peace as long as we see others as them and not us. There will be no peace as long as our alliances are against others, for alliances of some against others only increase divisions.” 

“Peace does not demand winners or losers, but rather brothers and sisters who, for all the misunderstandings and hurts of the past, are journeying from conflict to unity. Let us ask for this in praying for the whole Middle East. Here I think especially of neighboring war-torn Syria.”

Pope Francis said that people who believe in God have “no enemies to fight” apart from the “enemy that stands at the door of the heart and knocks to enter.” 

“That enemy is hatred,” he said.

He added: “It is up to us, today’s humanity, especially those of us, believers of all religions, to turn instruments of hatred into instruments of peace. It is up to us to appeal firmly to the leaders of nations to make the increasing proliferation of arms give way to the distribution of food for all.” 

“It is up to us to silence mutual accusations in order to make heard the cry of the oppressed and discarded in our world: all too many people lack food, medicine, education, rights and dignity!” 

“It is up to us to shed light on the shady maneuvers that revolve around money and to demand that money not end up always and only reinforcing the unbridled luxury of a few.”

Referring to the speeches that preceded his, Pope Francis said: “I was struck by the testimony of Dawood and Hasan, a Christian and a Muslim who, undaunted by the differences between them, studied and worked together. Together they built the future and realized that they are brothers.”

“In order to move forward, we too need to achieve something good and something concrete together. This is the way, especially for young people, who must not see their dreams cut short by the conflicts of the past!”

The pope continued: “Only with others can the wounds of the past be healed. Rafah told us of the heroic example of Najy, from the Sabean Mandean community, who lost his life in an attempt to save the family of his Muslim neighbor. How many people here, amid the silence and indifference of the world, have embarked upon journeys of fraternity!”



At the end of the interreligious meeting, those present recited a “Prayer of the Children of Abraham.” 

It read: “Almighty God, our Creator, you love our human family and every work of your hands: As children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims, together with other believers and all persons of good will, we thank you for having given us Abraham, a distinguished son of this noble and beloved country, to be our common father in faith.”

“We thank you for his example as a man of faith, who obeyed you completely, left behind his family, his tribe and his native land, and set out for a land that he knew not. We thank you too, for the example of courage, resilience, strength of spirit, generosity and hospitality set for us by our common father in faith.”

“We thank you in a special way for his heroic faith, shown by his readiness even to sacrifice his son in obedience to your command. We know that this was an extreme test, yet one from which he emerged victorious, since he trusted unreservedly in you, who are merciful and always offer the possibility of beginning anew.”

“We thank you because, in blessing our father Abraham, you made him a blessing for all peoples. We ask you, the God of our father Abraham and our God, to grant us a strong faith, a faith that abounds in good works, a faith that opens our hearts to you and to all our brothers and sisters; and a boundless hope capable of discerning in every situation your fidelity to your promises.”

“Make each of us a witness of your loving care for all, particularly refugees and the displaced, widows and orphans, the poor and the infirm. Open our hearts to mutual forgiveness and in this way make us instruments of reconciliation, builders of a more just and fraternal society.”

“Welcome into your abode of peace and light all those who have died, particularly the victims of violence and war. Assist the authorities in the effort to seek and find the victims of kidnapping and in a special way to protect women and children.”

“Help us to care for the earth, our common home, which in your goodness and generosity you have given to all of us. Guide our hands in the work of rebuilding this country, and grant us the strength needed to help those forced to leave behind their homes and lands, enabling them to return in security and dignity, and to embark upon a new, serene and prosperous life. Amen.”

After a final song and group photo with religious leaders, the pope returned to Nassiriya Airport for a flight back to Baghdad, which was expected to land at 13.20 local time.

Pope Francis makes landmark visit to Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

CNA Staff, Mar 6, 2021 / 01:40 am (CNA).- Pope Francis on Saturday made a landmark visit to the home of Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office, said March 6 that the two men spoke for almost an hour during a private meeting at al-Sistani’s residence in Najaf, central Iraq.

“During the courtesy visit, which lasted about 45 minutes, the Holy Father stressed the importance of cooperation and friendship between religious communities for contributing -- through the cultivation of mutual respect and dialogue -- to the good of Iraq, the region and the entire human family,” Bruni said.

The meeting -- a milestone in relations between the Catholic Church and Shiite Islam -- came on the second day of the pope’s historic visit to Iraq.

Francis stayed overnight at the apostolic nunciature in Baghdad. He left the residence early on Saturday morning, traveling by car to Baghdad International Airport.

He took an Iraqi Airways flight to Najaf, the third holiest city of Shiite Islam after Mecca and Medina. He was welcomed by Najaf province governor Louay al-Yasiri at Najaf Airport.



He then traveled by car to the 90-year-old al-Sistani’s modest residence. He was greeted at the entrance by the Grand Ayatollah’s son, Mohammed Rida, who led him to the room where his father holds private conversations with visitors.



The Shiite leader is believed to have played a critical role in the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq. As Iraqi forces faced Islamic State fighters in 2017, al-Sistani urged all Iraqi citizens to take arms to defend the country, regardless of their ethnicity or religious beliefs. Thousands of volunteers responded to the call and formed the Popular Mobilization Forces, playing a critical role in stopping the Islamic State.

Bruni said: “The meeting was an occasion for the Pope to thank Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani for speaking up -- together with the Shiite community -- in defense of those most vulnerable and persecuted amid the violence and great hardships of recent years, and for affirming the sacredness of human life and the importance of the unity of the Iraqi people.”



After the private meeting and an official photo, the pope returned to Najaf Airport. He boarded a plane to Nassiriya, a city along the banks of the Euphrates River. He was welcomed by Chaldean Archbishop Habib Jajou of Basra and Bishop Firas Dardar, leader of the Syriac Patriarchal Exarchate of Basra and the Gulf. Civil and religious authorities were also present.

He then traveled by car to the Plain of Ur for an interreligious meeting.

“In taking leave of the Grand Ayatollah, the Holy Father stated that he continues to pray that God, the Creator of all, will grant a future of peace and fraternity for the beloved land of Iraq, for the Middle East and for the whole world,” Bruni said.

Medal of Honor chaplain Fr Emil Kapaun's body identified, as sainthood inquiry continues

Denver Newsroom, Mar 5, 2021 / 05:27 pm (CNA).- Department of Defense investigators have identified the remains of U.S. Army chaplain and Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun among the unknown Korean War soldiers buried in a Hawaiian cemetery, much to the surprise and joy of the priest’s relatives and devotees in his home state of Kansas.
 
“I just hope everybody is as elated as we are. It’s awesome to know that Fr. Kapaun will be coming home after 70 years,” Fr. John Hotze of the Diocese of Wichita told CNA March 5. 
 
Ray Kapaun, the priest’s nephew, reflected on the news.
 
“There’s no words that can explain what the feelings are right now,” he said, according to KWCH News.
 
“I know there’s been a lot of miracles that have been attributed to him, or are in the investigation of being attributed to him, but I think everyone sees this as a miracle,” Ray said. “Because this is so unexpected. I mean, my family, we never thought we’d see this in our lifetime.”
 
The priest had been a chaplain during the Second World War and became known for his service in the Korean War with the U.S. Army's Eighth Cavalry regiment. After he was taken prisoner, he served and ministered to other soldiers in a prison camp, where he died May 23, 1951.
 
The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has determined that the priest’s remains were among unidentified soldiers buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, the Wichita diocese said March 4. Many soldiers’ remains had been moved there from North Korea in the 1950s and again in the 1990s.
 
Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita welcomed the discovery.
 
“It was a joyful and exciting surprise for the Diocese of Wichita that Fr. Kapaun’s mortal remains were recovered after so many years and we continue to look forward to his process of canonization in the future,” said the bishop.
 
Kapaun’s surviving family is helping to plan the transport of his remains and his final resting place.
 
Father Hotze, who serves as the episcopal delegate for Kapaun’s beatification cause, said the news of the identification of the priest’s remains was “easily one of the last things I expected.”
 
“We’ve always hoped that his remains would be found. It is something that has been on the back burner for everybody for so long. It is great news,” he said.

He reported that the chaplain’s cause for Catholic sainthood is in “a waiting phase” due to delays related to the coronavirus pandemic.
 
In 1993, Kapaun was named a “Servant of God,” the first step on the way to being declared a saint. To be declared “venerable” is the second step in the canonization process. A key meeting regarding his case had been scheduled at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in March 2020, but that meeting was postponed due to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy.
 
Hotze had high praise for the army chaplain, describing him as “an ordinary person who was able to do extraordinary things in service to his fellow men and women and ultimately that meant in service to God.”
 
“And that’s how he gave his life,” he said. “He truly followed the example of Christ. You can see Christ’s life, passion and death all rolled up into Fr. Kapaun.”
 
Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kansas in 1916. He came of age during the Great Depression. He was ordained a priest in 1940 and began ministry as a parish priest in his hometown.
 
During World War II Kapaun would offer the sacraments at the nearby Harrington Army Air Field until he became a full-time army chaplain in 1944. He was stationed in India and Burma for the duration of the war. There, he ministered to soldiers and served his unit with a selfless attitude.
 
He also gained a reputation for courage. After Kapaun’s jeep had been damaged, he would often ride his bicycle to meet soldiers even at the front lines. He would follow the sound of gunshots to find them.
 
After World War II ended, Kapaun studied history and education at the Catholic University of America. He returned home for a brief time as pastor of his boyhood parish and served at several other parishes. In 1948, the United States issued a call for military chaplains to return to service. Kapaun responded. He was then sent to Texas, Washington, and Japan before deployment to Korea.
 
During the Battle of Unsan in November 1950, Kapaun worked tirelessly to comfort the suffering and retrieve the wounded from the battlefield. One of the soldiers he retrieved was a wounded Chinese soldier, who helped him negotiate a surrender after he was surrounded by enemy troops. Kapaun was taken captive as a prisoner of war.
 
Even then, he helped others. Kapaun carried a wounded American prisoner who could not walk some 30 miles to a prison camp, though the soldier weighed 20 pounds more than the priest. The man could have been killed by enemy soldiers if he could not keep up with the march.
 
The priest was taken to prison camp number five in Pyoktong, a bombed-out village that served as a detainment center. The soldiers at the camp were severely mistreated and suffered from malnourishment, dysentery, and a lack of warm clothing to counter an extremely cold winter. Kapaun would do all he could for the soldiers. He would wash their soiled clothes, retrieve fresh water, and attend to their wounds.
 
The priest helped his fellow prisoners solve problems and keep up morale. He would stay up at night to write letters home on behalf of wounded soldiers. Many returned prisoners of war said his efforts helped them to survive in a harsh winter. For those who did not survive, the priest helped to bury their corpses.
 
Fr. Kapaun would celebrate the sacraments for his fellow prisoners, hear their confessions, and say Mass. On Easter Sunday 1951, about two months before his death, he held a sunrise service for prisoners.
 
When he developed pneumonia and a blood clot in his leg, the chaplain was denied medical treatment, which led to his death.
 
For his bravery at Unsan, Kapaun was posthumously bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor in a 2013 ceremony under President Barack Obama. The medal is the United States’ highest military award for bravery.
 
While the priest’s body was believed to have been buried in a mass grave on the Yalu River near the North Korea-China border, this was not the case. Instead, his remains had been returned to the U.S. in the 1950s along with hundreds of other unidentified soldiers, Hotze told CNA. He believes inquiry into his possible canonization led to information that Hotze helped lead to the identification of the chaplain’s remains.
 
“He was buried elsewhere in the prison camp,” said Hotze. “His remains were actually returned to the U.S. right after the Korean War, around 1954.”
 
A set of remains had initially been mislabeled as Fr. Kapaun’s, but investigators determined they instead belonged to a younger man in his late teens or early 20s, rather than to a 35-year-old priest. Further identification was difficult, in part to a lack of technology.
 
“He was interred at the national cemetery, as were many others, as an unknown soldier,” Hotze said. “Fortunately, the Department of Defense still actively tries to identify the remains of these unknown soldiers.”
 
Those involved in Kapaun’s canonization cause were told it could be a matter of time to identify his remains if they were indeed at the cemetery.
 
“And that’s exactly what happened,” said Hotze. “We’re thrilled.”
 
Every June pilgrims march from Wichita to Kapaun’s hometown of Pilsen. They make the 60-mile walk in commemoration of the priest and his march to the prison camps.
 
“People are inspired by what he was able to do,” Hotze said. “He was born shortly before the depression. He grew up during the depression as a poor Kansas farmer. The family had nothing. And he was able to make great things happen with nothing.”
 
“He used what he had, and put it in service to God and in service to others. I think he’s a perfect example for each and every one of us who strives to be a saint,” he said. “We can look at his example and realize even if we are poor, even if we are destitute, even if we have nothing in our own lives, we can still be a saintly person.”
 
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who had introduced legislation to award Kapaun the Medal of Honor, also commented on the identification of the priest’s remains.
 
“I am glad that his family has finally been granted closure after Father Kapaun’s selfless service to our nation,” said Moran, according to the Wichita Eagle newspaper.

States consider restrictions on gender transitioning, transgender participation in girls’ sports

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- Lawmakers in Mississippi and Alabama have been debating bills concerning children who identify as transgender.

The governor of Mississippi pledges to sign a bill that would prohibit males who identify as females from participating on girls’ sports teams.

“I will sign our bill to protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities,” said Gov. Tate Reeves (R) on Twitter on March 4. 

“It’s crazy we have to address it, but the Biden (executive order) forced the issue,” he added. “Adults? That’s on them. But the push for kids to adopt transgenderism is just wrong.” President Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order stated that his administration will interpret federal civil rights law to protect sexual orientation and gender identity, a move critics warned would have broad implications in a number of areas including schools and sports.

The Mississippi legislature voted overwhelmingly--81 to 28 in the state House and 34-9 in the state Senate--to pass the “Mississippi Fairness Act.” Eight Democratic House representatives joined 73 Republicans to vote for the bill, while the Senate vote fell along party lines with all “yea” votes coming from Republicans.  

The Mississippi Fairness Act would “require any public school, public institution of higher learning or institution of higher learning that is a member of the NCAA, NAIA or NJCCA to designate its athletic teams or sports according to biological sex; to provide protection for any school or institution of higher education that maintains separate athletic teams or sport for students of the female sex; to create private causes of action; and for related purposes.” 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 25 states have considered bills restricting athletes who identify as transgender from competing on a sports team aligned with their gender identity. 

Only one state, Idaho, has so far signed a bill restricting athletes identifying as transgender from competing with cisgender female athletes. The law has yet to go into effect and has been stalled in the courts.

Meanwhile in the neighboring state of Alabama, the state senate voted to make it a felony to provide a minor with puberty-blocking drugs, hormone therapy, or surgery to better mimic their chosen gender. 

A child with a diagnosed disorder of sexual development, such as a chromosomal abnormality, is exempt from the law. 

The Alabama Senate voted 23-4 to move the “Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act” to the state House of Representatives. The vote fell along party lines, with all Democrats voting against and all Republicans voting in favor of the bill. 

The bill also would make it illegal for school employees, including teachers, principals, nurses, and counselors, to “encourage or coerce a minor to withhold from the minor’s parent or legal guardian the fact that the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with his or her sex,” or “withhold from a minor’s parent or guardian information related to a minor’s perception that his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with his or her sex.”