Speaking to journalists aboard the papal flight bringing him back to Rome after his historic visit to Iraq, Pope Francis looks back at some of the most salient milestones of the Apostolic Journey.
By Linda Bordoni
Conversing with journalists on Monday during the flight from Baghdad that brought him back to Rome, after his four-day Apostolic Visit to Iraq, Pope Francis reflected on some of the most significant moments of the visit, on his feelings and emotions before the image of destroyed churches in Mosul, and on his promise to Lebanese Patriarch, Cardinal Bechara Rai, to visit his country.
After greeting the new coordinator of papal journeys, Monsignor Dieunonné Datonou, the Pope recalled the 8 March observance of International Women’s Day and revealed that, during a conversation with the President of Iraq and with his wife, the annual celebration was mentioned with a comment on how there is no International Men’s Day. “I noted,” the Holy Father said, “Men are celebrated every day!”
Pope Francis then proceeded to answer questions put to him by the journalists.
The first question regarded the Pope’s meetings with religious representatives of the Muslim world. Two years ago he met with the Grand Imam Al Tayyeb of Al Azhar with whom he signed the Declaration on Universal Fraternity; three days ago he met Sunni cleric, Ayatollah Al Sistani. Does he foresee, the question continued, a similar encounter with a representative of Shiite Islam?
Pope Francis revealed that the Abu Dhabi document of February had been prepared in secret with the Grand Imam Al Tayyeb over the course of six months of deep reflection and prayer.
In a way, he said, his meeting in Iraq with the Ayatollah could be described as a “second step”. Highlighting the importance of continuing to tread the path of fraternity, the Pope said there will be others.
“The Abu Dhabi document left in me a restlessness for fraternity, and then Fratelli tutti was published, he said, noting that both documents go in the same direction.
Recalling a phrase pronounced by the Sunni Ayatollah, he said Al Sistani described men and women as being brothers and sisters per religion, all of us equal per creation, and he said that culture plays a role in this.
Noting the centuries it has taken to change the mentality of some deeply-rooted ideas and convictions, the Pope said “our faith makes us discover that the revelation of Jesus is love and charity” which lead us to human fraternity.
“This is important, human fraternity, that we are all brothers and sisters and we must move forward with other religions,” he said.
And reflecting on the criticism that sometimes comes his way “that the Pope is taking steps against Catholic doctrine, that he is one step away from heresy,” he said “there are risks” but that these decisions are always made in prayer, in dialogue, in asking for advice, in line with the Second Vatican Council.
Asked about a possible visit to the suffering Lebanese nation, Pope Francis revealed that Cardinal Bechara Rai had asked him to make a stop in Beirut during this just-concluded journey.
“But it seemed like a bit of a crumb…. A crumb before the problems of a country that is suffering like Lebanon,” he said, adding that he has promised to make the visit to the nation, which despite its crisis is so generous in welcoming refugees.
Meeting with Al Sistani ‘a universal message’
Then the Pope took another question regarding his meeting with the Ayatollah Al Sistani and whether it was also a message to the religious leaders of Iran?
“I believe that it was a universal message. I felt the duty to make this pilgrimage of faith and penance, and to go and see a great, a wise man, a man of God,” he answered.
Pope Francis described the Ayatollah as person of wisdom, prudence, humility and respect, and said he felt honoured to be welcomed by him.
“He is a beacon. And these wise men are everywhere because God’s wisdom has been scattered all over the world,” he said, just as it happens with saints who are not only those depicted on altars, but also the many saints next door: “men and women who live their faith, whatever it may be, with consistency.”
When there are scandals, even in the Church, he said, “let’s hold up those who seek the path of fraternity… we will surely find someone from our own family, a grandfather, a grandmother…”
Asked whether he has plans to visit his homeland, Argentina, or return there if he should ever resign, the Pope said he has already answered that question, pointing out that should he resign he will stay in his diocese, Rome.
Noting that he has spent 76 years of his life in Argentina, the Pope revealed that there were preparations for a visit to the country in November 2017 as part of an apostolic visit to Chile and Uruguay. But, he explained, it had to be cancelled because of the election campaign in Chile, and then a couple of months afterwards it was not possible for climatic reasons. He added the possibility was raised again to associate a visit to Argentina with a visit to Peru but that also fell through, and he ended up travelling to Chile and Peru in January 2018.
He ruled out any fears of returning to his homeland, and said: “when there is the opportunity, it can be done.” And he explained that all his journeys are the fruit of advice, reflection and prayer.
Regarding his journey to Iraq, he said it was borne of many seeds, including the book “The Last Girl” about the Yazidis by Nadia Mourad: “This is the underlying reason for my decision. That book worked inside me.”
He “confessed” that at 84 years of age he got very tired during the Iraqi journey, but revealed that a visit to Hungary for the closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress – not a visit to the country but just for the Mass – is in the cards.
“But Budapest is a two-hour drive from Bratislava, why not make a visit to Slovakia? This is how things come about…,” he mused.
Covid-19 and the visit to Iraq
Responding to a question regarding the fear of a possible rise of infections of Covid-19 in Iraq triggered by gatherings of people for papal events, Pope Francis said it was a decision that followed much prayer and reflection.
“We’ve seen the courage, the dynamism of Iraqi Christians. We’ve also seen the challenges they face, the threat of Islamist violence, the exodus and their witness to the faith,” he said, all challenges of Christians throughout the region.
Pope Francis said the visit to Iraq provided extra reflection regarding the issue of migration. He highlighted the fact that the Iraqi people is a young one and that so many young Iraqis are forced to leave their country.
“Migration is a double right: the right not to migrate and the right to migrate,” he said, noting that these people have neither, because the world has not yet taken conscience of the fact that to be able to migrate is a human right and that too often migration is perceived as “an invasion”.
He mentioned his meeting on Sunday evening after the Mass in Erbil with the father of Alan Kurdi, the child who drowned off the coast of Turkey in 2015 while attempting to enter Europe.
“Alan Kurdi is a symbol. (…) A symbol that goes beyond that of a child who died during migration: he is a symbol of civilization that is dying,” he said, noting that urgent measures are needed so that people have work in their own countries and do not have to migrate, as well as measures to preserve the right to migrate.
The Pope also noted the need for countries to receive migrants, to integrate them and promote them. He also singled out and thanked what he called “generous” countries like Lebanon and Jordan that are opened their borders to millions of refugees.
Answering a question about the possibility of other apostolic visits to suffering Middle Eastern countries on the heels of this historic visit to Iraq, the Pope reiterated his promise to go to Lebanon but said he has not considered the possibility of visiting the beloved country of Syria.
Pope Francis revealed that he has lived the isolation of imposed by the pandemic with feelings of “imprisonment”
Reaffirming the need to respect the rules dictated by authorities, he said that to be able to travel again has been a rebirth, and he spoke of his need, as a priest, to serve the people of God and to be close to them.
At times, he said “I am afraid that we, men and women of the Church, especially we priests, do not have this gratuitous closeness to the people of God who are the ones who save us.”
He spoke of the importance of having contact with the faithful which, he said, “saves us, helps us, (…) gives us belonging. Let us not forget this belonging to the people of God!”
Pope Francis concluded with a reflection on the emotions he felt in seeing the destruction of Churches in the city of Mosul and how it evoked questions regarding the sale of weapons and the responsibilities that lie at the roots of war.
And on International Women’s Day, he turned his attention to the millions of girls and women who suffer human trafficking, which is a direct result of conflict and poverty.
In some parts of the world, he said, “women are still slaves and we have to fight, struggle, for the dignity of women. They are the ones who carry history forward. This is not an exaggeration, and it is not merely a compliment because today is Women’s Day!”