In 2017, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the establishment of our Major Seminary of St. Peter for the Chaldean Patriarchate in Iraq. It is now the only seminary functioning in Iraq and it accepts all Chaldean seminarians throughout the world. Among our seminarians are those who have suffered at the hands of ISIS, whose families were displaced and lost everything. Despite these trials, our main goal remains shaping stronger Catholic priests in an unstable and violent environment.
In my experience as rector of the seminary, forming candidates to the priesthood, while it is a lifelong process, should focus on four dimensions: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. Giving proper formation in these areas in a country that suffers from the effects of war, terrorism and ethnic conflicts is challenging, to say the least. However, our reality urges us to prepare future leaders who will transmit the faith to the people in this land of persecution and who will be signs of peace and hope.
Our seminarians understand what is at stake and the importance of the Christian witness, and they respond with generosity. In a recent interview for a Catholic publication, one of our seminarians demonstrated this fact, saying he “understood the meaning of mission in a country like Iraq.” Despite the obvious challenges, he went on to urge “young people to undertake the loving service [of a priestly or religious vocation] that our world needs today.”
In our seminary we tackle different aspects of life through our series of weekly meetings with a variety of professors, priests and professionals. We encourage and teach that human formation must never be ignored or forgotten because it is at the core of who we are.
Through this program of formation, each seminarian has the opportunity to speak privately with his spiritual director to clear his mind of any interior conflict, because tomorrow’s priests should be the “living image” of Christ, who is the head and shepherd of the church. The seminarian in his person must strive for the level of human maturity that Christ attained and mirror it to the people and cultures in which he offers his service, regardless of their religious affiliation or ethnic identity.
The seminarians learn to discern the will of God and to grow more generous in their vocation. We emphasize not only liturgical prayer but also growth in personal prayer. Due to the war and terrorism in Iraq, it is important we have a strong relationship with God, who is our comfort. Without a strong spiritual life, we cannot bring a sense of hope or the comfort of Christ to others. For this reason, our timetable includes moments for silence and solitude intended to encourage seminarians to reflect upon and learn to embrace this call.
The seminarians are directed also to “set out” and preach the Gospel. They are encouraged to spend their free time, especially on Sundays, collaborating in parishes, teaching catechism and giving instruction to young people. They are requested to participate ardently in various services in their own communities, especially during the summer break and on solemn feasts, such as Christmas and Easter. Each Friday, they teach catechism in local parishes and organize youth activities and spiritual gatherings. Some of our seminarians assist members of displaced communities that have been affected by ISIS.
We try to nurture in each student the compassion of a good shepherd. This is the ability to assume a conscientious and mature responsibility for the care of souls. This also requires an interior strength and perception that will allow him to evaluate pastoral difficulties and to establish the priorities in his mission.
To be blunt: The reality of priesthood in a country racked by persecution may result in martyrdom. We prepare the seminarians for this possibility through the real-life experiences of our very own priests who have died at the hands of terrorists — Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul and Father Ragheed Ghanni — and others. Both Archbishop Rahho and Father Ghanni were students at our seminary.
The situation is still difficult. We remind our seminarians always that being Christian in Iraq means to be ready always to face martyrdom. For this reason, our church is called “the church of martyrs.” Our young people are not afraid. But their families are, fearing their children could be killed if they become priests.
Due to the lack of security, political instability, extremism and violence that increased substantially after 2014, we have been suffering from another dangerous phenomenon as well — “the migration” — that is, the displacement and departure of hundreds of thousands of Iraq’s Christians. For this reason, we look forward to Pope Francis’ visit to our country at the beginning of March as one of comfort and hope. Our hope is that his visit will promote respect for human rights, peace and fraternity, while advocating for an end to war and violence.
Priests in Iraq are required to challenge all aspects of life. We are priests, but also soldiers, guardians, teachers, comforters, counselors, providers and much more. I remember when ISIS invaded our lands: The people sought refuge in the churches and we were responsible for the safety of our communities. In a land devastated by war and filled with grief, trust is the only thing that keeps our community strong.
I always recall the day of my priestly ordination by the hand of the late Archbishop Rahho, which took place one month after the martyrdom of Father Ghanni.
On that occasion, my bishop said: “We have just lost a priest. Today, we have found another.”
I heed those words in order to take courage and remain always optimistic. It is why I repeat the words of St. John Paul II to future priests under my care: “Do not be afraid!”
Priesthood, in union with our own experience, is lived according to the will of God as an imitation of our personal Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is a sign of hope for our church to be active during the darkest times. Our seminary is proud of keeping the light of hope lit for our local and universal church.
Father Ephrem Gilyana Dinkha is the rector of St. Peter Seminary of the Chaldean Patriarchate in Erbil, Iraq.