ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Forming a Few Good Men

In the face of many problems, Iraqi seminarians nevertheless pursue their vocations.

The four-year-old’s large, brown eyes stared plaintively at us as we crammed into the back seat of his father’s dilapidated car. Nine years of crippling United Nations sanctions have taken their toll on nearly every vehicle in Iraq. Invariably, a headlight or some more important mechanism is broken or recycled because of a lack of spare parts. Our car crawled across Baghdad’s urban sprawl. From time to time it emitted pitiful sputters.

In the front seat, a priest held the child, Rami, tenderly in his lap and gave him something with which to amuse himself during the long ride to St. Peter’s Chaldean Patriarchal Seminary.

“Rami, ya Rami!” Father Farid dangled a small wooden crucifix in front of Rami. The child grabbed the cross in his chubby little hands and kissed it. This small act of affection manifests his family’s faith in Jesus Christ.

Christians number just 800,000 out of Iraq’s nearly 24 million people; Catholics make up the majority of Christians, with some 640,000 faithful. But, as in other parts of the Middle East, Iraq’s Christian community is an intricate mosaic of diverse communities. Catholics alone boast four different churches: Armenian, Chaldean, Latin and Syrian. The largest of these is the Chaldean Church, which shares the traditions and rites of the Assyrian Church of the East. There are also smaller Orthodox and Protestant congregations.

We entered the seminary’ peaceful compound after a dusty trek across town. Father Louis Sako, the short, sprightly Rector of St. Peter’s, greeted us warmly on our arrival.

Raised in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul, Father Sako teaches 56 seminarians – all of whom receive support from CNEWA – the rudiments of the faith, church history and philosophy. The 40-something priest holds two doctorates – one from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and the other from the Sorbonne in Paris. He also trained in Germany.

Although Father Sako’s intellectual capabilities clearly stand out, it is his humility and devotion to Christ’s calling to serve that immediately strike the visitor. Father Sako says his mission is to help in the spiritual formation of Iraqi men, mainly in their mid to late 20’s, so they will become suitable priests for the third millennium.

“What we need are really good priests – open, dynamic and willing to work with their people. They should be for their people, and not for themselves,” he emphasized.

Father Sako says some of the men who begin theological training arrive with their own problems, which require proper handling. Little by little, however, they come to understand their vocation and what it takes to become a good priest. For Father Sako, it means having an open mind, a deep spirituality and a sincere desire to help people.

“In Iraq, there is no hope,” he added. “Everyone now thinks of leaving the country because there is no future. Even the clergy want to get out, to study or be appointed to some Chaldean or Syrian parish in the West, America, Australia, all over,” lamented the slightly graying priest.

But Father Sako believes that instilling a vision for Christian service and a commitment to Iraq and its people is the only way to empower his seminarians and the church.

“The church has a missionary dimension – otherwise there is no church.

“I speak with them about staying at home, loving their country, their church, their people and working for them. They should give themselves up just like Christ gave himself up. Otherwise, there is no sense in becoming a priest. This is not a privilege.”

Father Sako served as a parish priest for 10 years before assuming the position of rector two years ago. While pastor, he created a dispensary to care for the needs of the parish and the surrounding area. Doctors volunteered their time and expertise and medicine was made available. The little clinic also ministered to the emotional needs of the elderly and young people who came in search of help and hope.

Seminarians like 28-year-old Yousef Khalid share their mentor’s vision:

“The people need priests who will reach out to them where they are,” he said.

“I want to work among the street kids, children who have nothing and are forced to fend for themselves because of the sanctions.”

The UNICEF office in Baghdad has expressed concern over the increase of juvenile delinquency and children hustling on the city’ streets. UNICEF says children are dropping out of school to beg and some young women are forced into prostitution just to survive.

According to the Iraqi government, more than one million students have failed to enroll in school – this is about 20 percent of Iraq’s primary and secondary school students. Before the 1991 Gulf War, education in Iraq was free. Now, parents are required to contribute to students’ school fees – and many simply do not have the money.

All the men studying at St. Peter’s are high-school graduates. Some started their theological studies at the “minor seminary,” a religious preparatory school. Seven of them completed their university studies in engineering before entering the seminary. The first year of seminary studies lays the foundation, with introductory courses in church history, philosophy, theology and sacred literature. This is followed by two more years of philosophy and four of theology.

The students hail mainly from both Chaldean and Syrian Catholic backgrounds. Father Sako says the seminary alternates weekly between celebrating the Qurbana, or Divine Liturgy, in the Chaldean and Syrian rites.

The men come from Iraq’s north and from Baghdad and its environs. Once based in Mosul, St. Peter’s relocated to Baghdad in the 1960’s following a large-scale migration of Catholics to the capital.

Father Sako states that a number of the seminarians come from poor families and lack pocket money and the fees needed to visit their families twice a year during the holidays.

St. Peter’s ordained six seminarians last June, but Father Sako says all dormitory rooms are full. He thinks more rooms will be built next year, as they are desperately needed. Although some Iraqis, particularly Christians, are trying to emigrate, Father Sako believes there are others who want to enter convents, monasteries or the seminary.

“Maybe that’s a sign of conversion or a sense of religious vocation,” he added.

Those studying at St. Peter’s demonstrated a clear sense of calling as they shared their motivation for entering the priesthood and the expectations they brought to their ministry. As they spoke from their hearts, one heard in their voices the pain and suffering experienced as members of a nation in isolation.

Their words revealed a desire to find good in their suffering – to see this, too, as an act of redemption. The pressure felt from living under sanctions is immense, but, as Christians, they say they want Iraqis to see Christ in their ministries and in their lives.

Ghassen Kiryakos is a 27-year-old Syrian Catholic from Baghdad. He recalled that while a student in the agricultural institute, the idea kept returning to him to do something to help the church. “But the vision wasn’t clear,” he said.

Ghassen said that while completing his studies and military service, “I found myself having the power within to do the work needed in the church.” Afterward he was presented as a candidate for the seminary. Ghassen said his prayer life has changed since being at the seminary. “Now I am closer to God.”

Ghassen hopes for a greater understanding between the different churches and wants to see the church become more involved in helping the poorest, those who are suffering the most.

Fady Philip said the idea of becoming a priest came to him while studying at the faculty of arts, but his family refused to acknowledge the notion. He thought about serving the church as a lay person, adding, “I had no wish to study theology.”

After finishing his faculty studies and military service, Fady attended a spiritual conference. During a silent prayer retreat, he thought again about the priesthood.

“I decided to become a priest and I am very happy,” said Fady, his dark eyes gleaming with joy.

Fady believes that the church needs to increase its efforts to bring peace and happiness to others, especially those with physical and mental disabilities. His own parish church has set up an outreach to the disabled called the Group of Joy. Fady also wants to encourage dialogue among Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians in Iraq.

Ra’ed Washan, 30, left an established career at the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad to enter St. Peter’s. He discovered the seminary during visits to relatives who live near the theological institute.

“Something flashed inside me when I found out that the seminary accepts people my age. I took a month-long holiday to evaluate what was going on in my life,” he explained. “I thank God for being here.”

Ra’ed’s experience differs from that of Thair Abdel Messih, who has spent half of his 22 years in theological training, beginning first at the minor seminary.

“I have known only one person in my life, and that is Jesus Christ,” said Thair. Hailing from Zakho in northern Iraq, he expressed how grateful he is for the training he has received; he said it helped to make him a leader and has taught him to deepen his relationship with God. Thair wants to show people a true picture of Jesus Christ, especially to those who are far from him.

Fady summed up the seminarians’ attitudes when he said he hoped that God would use the men as instruments of joy and hope to all – be they Christian or Muslim – because despair is now the prevailing emotion in Iraq.

Dale Gavlak, our Cairo-based correspondent, travels frequently throughout “our world.”

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