The patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church urged clergy to renew their commitment to Christ and “serve people with love” under difficult circumstances caused by violence and displacement.
The call from Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad came during a two-day conference focusing on renewal and restoration of the Chaldean Church in Iraq for five bishops and about 65 priests, seminarians and deacons. They met at the patriarchal seminary in Ankawa, in the Kurdistan area of northern Iraq.
“We realise that we have a long, spiritual way to go on the steps of Jesus Christ, inspired by the Gospel that has been implanted in this land and watered by the blood of our martyrs,” the patriarch said in his opening address at the conference under the theme “Merciful like the Father.”
Patriarch Sako called on clergy to be determined “to prepare the Chaldean Church for an important phase of restoration and renewal” to help Iraqi Christians to live out their mission courageously.
The meeting was the first for the Chaldean Church in which the agenda focused on the spiritual, pastoral, cultural, educational and social challenges priests and bishops face in their daily work. The patriarch stressed the importance of standing by the faithful in their suffering.
The Chaldean Catholic Church has been challenged by the displacement of more than 120,000 Christians, who sought shelter in Kurdistan after being uprooted from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain by the Islamic State group in the summer of 2014.
The Christian presence in Iraq dates to the time of the apostles. Before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, about 1.3 million Christians lived in Iraq, about 70 per cent Chaldeans. Now less than 300,000 Christians remain in the country, according to Church sources.
Participants agreed on nine steps for the Church, among them organising an annual group spiritual retreat for Chaldean clergy in Iraq with the first to be in September.
A statement released by the conference encouraged the participation of lay people of both genders in the parish and diocesan councils, noting that lay people “can help the clergy in their mission based on the grace given to each one of them.”
Patriarch Sako in a final statement reiterated that priestly services are free and that sacraments “cannot be sold or bought,” noting that dioceses should guarantee a reasonable salary that “assures a decent life for the priest.”
He noted that priests are not allowed to move from one diocese to another without the permission of their bishop and the approval of the bishop who receives him.
Reminding the clergy, that the Gospel is their cause, the patriarch said, “Our evangelical service is not a business and should be unconditional, voluntary, honest and full of God’s light … to touch the hearts of our displaced people” amid their related worries of immigration and returning home.
He cautioned the clergy to keep in mind that “migration of Iraqi Christians means that our traditions, values and heritage will melt gradually and the country will become like a story from the past.”