The dean of the Chaldean seminary remembers Fr Ragheed and Archbishop Rahho in relation to his ordination. He repeatedly tells his 15 students to heed Pope John Paul II’s motto “Do not be afraid!”. Instability and insecurity lead to flight. Parents fear that their sons will be killed if he becomes priests. He urges young people to follow “Christ's call”. This is the third and last part of the report on vocations in Iraq.
Erbil (AsiaNews) – “I was ordained a month after the martyrdom of Fr Ragheed [Ganni] by then Archbishop Rahho of Mosul” who died a year later in the hands of his kidnappers, said Fr Ephrem Gilyana, dean of the St Peter’s Chaldean Patriarchal Seminary. This is why “I repeat the motto of Saint John Paul II, ‘Do not be afraid!’ to my (future) priests” because it is possible to guarantee “the future of the Church” through vocations.
Fr Gilyana’s faith is one of total self-dedication, including the ultimate sacrifice if need be, as Christ did. “During the ordination Mass, the bishop said: ‘We have just lost a priest, today we find another.’ I heed those words in order to try to always be optimistic.”
Fr Ephrem was born on 3 January 1976 in Mosul, northern Iraq, which was a stronghold of the Islamic State (IS) group.
Ordained in 2007, he was appointed in 2015 to head Iraq’s only seminary, which, since 2007, has been based in Ankawa, the Christian neighbourhood in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, after moving from Baghdad for security reasons.
We talked about the issue of vocations in the country with him following a recent appeal by the Chaldean patriarch, Card Louis Raphael Sako, and speaking with one of the 15 young men studying to become a priest.
"Patriarch Sako's call for vocations is very important because it is directed at young people, reminding them of their commitment to priestly service and consecrated life. The call, as the passage from Isaiah says, is the starting point because a Church without vocations is sad.”
Of course, “the lack of security and political instability, extremism and violence that grew even more after 2014 have not helped. The lack of vocations has worsened” with the Islamic State’s “conquest of the villages in the Nineveh Plain.”
Extremism is not the only explanation for the decline in vocations because "worrying things have also occurred within the Church which have had an impact. Various factors have contributed, such as more 'persuasive' messages spread by the media stifling the catechesis, and misleading theological, cultural, and pastoral pluralism.”
As a result, the Chaldean primate addressed young people at the start of the academic year in order to urge them to "be generous and have the courage to follow Jesus into the priesthood, giving life to others.”
However, for many young people, the problem “is the lack of political stability and security, which does not allow them to think about their future and that of their families,” Fr Ephrem explained.
In fact, Card Sako addressed his appeal precisely to families because the family “is the place where vocations are born and parents must be generous in giving their children to the Lord.” Yet, when peace and security are lacking, “confusion and the desire to flee elsewhere to build the future grow.”
The Iraqi Church is often called a Church of martyrs, martyrs like Fr Ragheed and Archbishop Rahho; this has had a “positive influence on the life of our young people.”
For the dean of St Peter’s Seminary, “the situation is still difficult; young people are not afraid but their families are, fearful that their children could be killed if they become priests.”
“In the West, the vocation crisis is rooted in secularism, whilst in Iraq the fear of losing children dominates. To have new vocations, it is first of all necessary to guarantee stability and security.”
In his daily work, Fr Ephrem says he has to cope with the "lack of staff in the seminary. I am the only resident member. Seminarians would like to count on at least two other priests. There is no spiritual dean and this creates major difficulties.”
Nonetheless, there are some factors to be “reasonably optimistic. Since 2014, the Church has done enormous work in terms of reconstruction. Small things give hope in a complex context that has lasted for quite some time: the war with Iran, the Gulf War, the fall of Saddam Hussein, violence, jihadis and now the coronavirus which for many is worse than the Islamic State.”
Finally, Fr Ephrem notes that the bishops “are above all responsible for vocations”. Speaking to young people, he urges them to be "more docile to God’s voice, open your spirit to Christ and listen to his voice, thinking about the future of your Church.”