The Apostolic Exhortation contains essential elements for Christian families. It has also elicited “positive thoughts” among Muslims. For the Chaldean Patriarch, Islam too is waiting for something different on the family and spousal relations. Despite the war, few families have broken down, which is not the case for those who emigrated. Married priests could be a model for the whole Church.
Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Chaldean Patriarch Mar Louis Raphael I Sako spoke to AsiaNews about Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ recent Apostolic Exhortation. which contains “two essential elements,” for the prelate, namely mercy, which helps prepare others to understand the truth, the value of conversion, and love, and the very positive impact it has had on Muslims, who "are waiting for something different" about the family, love, and marriage.
At present, “Having or creating a family is very hard” in Iraq. “It is a challenge,” if we consider the country’s wars and confessional strife. Still, hardships can boost ties. So far, Iraqi Christians have had “few broken families;” the same cannot be said about “those who went abroad, to the West”.
The close relationship between bishop, priests, and faithful is a key factor. But, “if we have authority, it is not to dominate but to serve, love, help, educate and guide people.”
The Chaldean Patriarch is open to the idea of married priests, an ancient tradition in the East, within the universal Church "because there are no contradictions,” and over time, "we will go in that direction". In fact, “The Gospel is not a tradition; it is the living word for today’s men and women. For this reason, we must confront current reality”.
Patriarch Sako’s interview with AsiaNews follows:
Your Beatitude: How important is the apostolic exhortation for Christian families in Iraq?
This text has two essential elements. The first is mercy, which is even more important in this Jubilee year. Jesus always speaks of mercy, one of the beatitudes that needs to be understood thoroughly because it must serve to prepare – and not destroy – people. It is not enough to forgive; we must help others to understand the value of mercy, which leads to the truth.
The Church must not be afraid; indeed, it must find the courage to improve and renew itself, because if we remain only in a traditional, conservative environment we will end up losing our faithful. Our mission is not to judge people, but to help them live in joy and forgiveness.
Then there is the element of conversion, which teaches us that the truth is love.
To what extent does Amoris Laetitia touch the Muslim world?
I think that this document – a summary of which would be handy – will have a very positive impact on Muslims, and not only here in Iraq. They too are waiting for a message, a different discourse. Take polygamy, for instance. How is it possible, today, to talk about polygamy and love? Marriage is not a baby factory. What matters is preparing and educating men to be fathers, and before that, the relationship of the couple, and the union between spouses. It will be important to spread this exhortation in the right language, i.e. Arabic. This will have a broad echo in the Muslim world, which will become interested in us, in our vision. The issue of the marriage unit, of the absence of polygamy . . . are all elements that touch Islam.
In fact, Pope Francis calls for embracing every one and forgetting no one . . .
Yes, these are words that have great value to us who know the tragedy of war, suffering and abandonment. In recent days, many have asked me why the pope welcomed Muslims at the Vatican on his return from Lesvos. I said that the Gospel does not differentiate between people who need help on the basis to their faith or ethnicity. The pope has made a highly symbolic gesture. He is very open-minded, and his action was appreciated by Muslims here. It was a highly evangelical message.
Your Beatitude: What does it mean to be a family in war-torn Iraq, amid sectarian violence and economic crisis?
Having or creating a family is very hard. It is a challenge, if we think of the political situation and the religious context. Sometimes people cannot even go to church. Economic problems and the lack of security generate great fear, but people, Christians, find strength by living fully their faith, in the Gospel.
The conflict has accentuated family crises. Are there more cases of separation or divorce?
No, on the contrary. We have had a few cases of broken families. Usually, those who go abroad, to the West, are the ones who go through profound crises that lead to break-up. They also learn the societal model in their host country. Here in Iraq, among those who remain, divorce cases are very limited, and the same goes for annulments.
Staying together, united, working and living together, protecting ourselves, being strong . . . This is the basis! For us there is nothing but the family, based on the patriarchal model, with tight and strong relations. This is even more so if we consider our daily interaction with Muslims and the tribal model. This is why for Christians it is essential to maintain strong family ties.
Patriarch Sako: Does the Iraqi Church have special programmes in support of the family?
Of course! We have different programmes. First of all, we have a course to prepare and train couples for marriage. Before the blessing, there is a thorough preparation path to follow. For those who are already married, there are prayer groups, to discuss and address problems.
There are also courses in theology open to couples and lay people in general, as well as opportunities to meet at the end of the Mass and the main services in the liturgical calendar. The faithful can meet in a classroom or outdoors, chat, meet, and help each other to boost community life.
In the parish, people know and visit each other. People do not feel like outsiders; they tend to create ties with each other, greet each other, and talk. The environment is very peaceful and homely.
Our task is to promote unity, teach, help, give a bit of hope, and promote the ministry. We have an expression for a pastor, and that is Abouna, which means father in Arabic. This means that I do not feel like an official. The Church of Jesus wants shepherds, not officials or administrators.
Is the bond between bishop, priests and community something that the Western Church should also rediscover?
I think so, because this relationship for us is essential! The faithful who come to Mass for us are not numbers; they are people. If one person does not come, I ask why he has not come. I make it my interest. I have always done it this way, first as pastor, and then bishop, in Kirkuk.
And then we have the visits to needy families, and now the displaced families*. I have always wondered what could be done to help them, to be close to them. I tell priests to be gentle, humble and serve the needy.
Besides, if we have authority, it is not to dominate but to serve, love, help, educate, and guide people. We have to make sacrifices for them, just as a father does when he goes to work to support his family. This is one of my biggest concerns at the pastoral level.
In the East, there are married priests. Could this practice be extended to the whole Church?
Why not? Today there is a shortage of priests. Why not open up the priesthood to married men. The culture and mind-set have changed. I am convinced that having married priests, as we do, would be a boost, a model for others. This is a choice. One can be a priest celibate or married. I think that over time we will go in that direction.
Of course, preparation is very important. Nevertheless, a family man can ensure good pastoral outreach, be closer to the people. There are no contradictions in this. Unmarried priests can live in the community. For me, living with others, as a priest and as a bishop, was a strength. Community life is a source of enrichment. I do the same today as the patriarch of Baghdad.
These two different types, married and unmarried priests, complement each other; they are not in contradiction. The Gospel is not a tradition; it is the living word for today’s men and women. For this reason, we must confront current reality.
* Refugees who fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain after they were overrun by the Islamic State group.