On a winter night in Amman, chilling rain has cleared the streets of their typical bustle. Yet, despite the dreary weather, the city’s people can still be found gathered in the comfort of their hearths — such as that of the convent of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, now ablaze with song, warm fellowship, conversation and fun.
“The Spirit gathers us together; Hallelujah,” sing some 35 Iraqi youth, belting out a jaunty tune in Arabic. Two Lebanese Franciscan sisters lead the choir: Sister Hanne Saad, a septuagenarian described as a ‘second mother’ by group members, and Sister Nisreen Freyha, herself just 32 years old.
A bittersweet mood prevails at this month’s meeting, as the youth group bids farewell to two brothers bound for resettlement as refugees in Windsor, Canada.
The pair’s lives were upended 2014, when ISIS overran their city of Qaraqosh in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain.
“When ISIS first entered our area, the Iraqi army and police ran off, leaving us without protection,” says one of the brothers, Ra’ed Omar, a 26-year-old graphic artist.
“We had to run for our lives. We had to leave everything behind; otherwise, we would be killed,” he says, pain still evident in his dark eyes.
Others in the group have similar stories: Following the invasion of their historically Christian communities, each of them was forced to make a life-changing decision in the face of brutality: pay a protection tax, convert to Islam or flee. The fear of death hung in the air.
Yet for all they have suffered, there remains an abiding sense of hope and optimism. In particular, the group members say their sojourn in Jordan has been spiritually transformative. As they reflect on their lives left behind in Iraq and the uncertain journey ahead — driven by numerous necessities, including political security and financial stability — they arrive at a shared conclusion: After being gravely tested, their faith has grown in the loving care of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who have spent years encouraging their spiritual formation and catechesis.
Mr. Omar says the program facilitated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary involves a mix of prayer, teaching, discussions, spiritual exercises, meditations and recreation. At times, the gathering may also attend Mass or host a discussion with a priest.
“They have influenced me a lot. I’ve learned so much,” Mr. Omar says, as steaming cups of strong, sugary tea and nut-filled sweets are passed around the room. “It’s a great atmosphere. I was far away from the church in Iraq, but in Jordan I came closer to the church, to God and his people.”
He adds, “It’s been an opportunity, too, to learn to love others without expecting anything in return.” Indeed, the youth group extends outreach to Iraqi children, orphans and others in desperate situations.
Hasnaa Nazar, a 24-year-old Chaldean Catholic, was working on her final year studying electrical engineering in Mosul when her university education was cut short by the invasion.
“I would like to be able to complete my studies and find work,” the lively brunette says. Following the death of her father, she says, she has had to think differently about her future with her mother and brother. “It’s important to have stability and security – both personally and for my nation.”
She continues: “The situation in Iraq has been extremely difficult for us to bear. ISIS took literally everything; I have had to begin life again from zero — no, maybe minus one, because we didn’t know anyone in Jordan. But we are positive.”
Ms. Nazar, too, says she has grown spiritually in Jordan.
“There is camaraderie we share — a community for us here,” she says. “There are activities for young women and the youth generally that I wasn’t involved in in Iraq. Honestly, it’s really wonderful.”
In Iraq, she was less concerned with day-to-day parish events.
“I was involved in church in a general way,” she explains. “But the spiritual studies we have [here] are so beneficial and effective.”
In particular, she says she has benefited from Bible study and learning about the inspirational lives of the saints — such as St. Don Bosco and Blessed Mary of the Passion, who founded the Society of St. Francis de Sales and the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, respectively.
Blessed Mary — or Marie de la Passion, in her native French — served the poor and the abandoned in India, China and other sites abroad in the 19th century. Deeply contemplative of the great mysteries of faith, her sisters model take to heart St. Francis of Assisi’s evangelical spirit of simplicity, poverty and charity.
“This has laid a foundation for me,” Ms. Nazar says. “It helps me a lot personally.”
Moreover, she and other group members have, in turn, been afforded opportunities to provide instruction and care to younger children — acts of nurturing that have proven important to the young adults, themselves. “It’s been a great experience, here in Jordan,” she says.
In myriad ways, large and small, through spiritual formation and fostering a sense of companionship, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary have provided Ms. Nazar and her fellow displaced Iraqis — and many others still – with a measure of healing.
The Synod of Bishops’ Special Assembly for the Middle East, called by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, declared that “catechesis is meant to make the faith known and lived. Young people and adults, each individual and entire communities of believers, should be properly catechized.”
It further said that, “since young people live in places characterized by all kinds of conflicts, they are to be catechized, strengthened in their faith and enlightened by the commandment of love, so that they can make a positive contribution.”
“Catechesis in our life is not solely for teaching or knowing faith, but also a call to live what one knows,” says Ra’ed Bahou, CNEWA’s regional director in Amman, of the sisters’ vital ministry.
“It aims to enrich one’s life to live as Christ did, promote moral formation, teach how to pray with Christ, and prepare Christians to live in a community and participate actively in the life and mission of the church,” he says.
“For me, the basis of my spirituality was formed in Iraq,” says Rami Wa’ed, a 25-year-old Syriac Catholic from Mosul and one of the youth group’s leaders.
“I have always loved being in the church: listening to the sermons, being part of the youth meetings, participating in many ways — first in Mosul, then in other places in Iraq and now here,” he says.
“No matter how much we partake of the spiritual experiences, we feel we need more,” he adds, his eyes alight with excitement. “Spiritual expertise is what we and others need to develop in our lives.”
Mr. Wa’ed previously assisted in a center providing counseling and assistance to displaced Iraqi Christians in the northern towns of Erbil and Ain Kawa, working alongside the Rev. Douglas al Bazi — a Chaldean priest who himself had been captured and tortured by ISIS for nine days.
“The trauma is huge,” he says. “People are really emotionally exhausted.”
Mr. Wa’ed credits the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, the Salesians and other men and women religious for their immense work in spiritual formation and catechesis.
“We appreciate so much what the nuns and priests are instructing us and developing within us — a very rich spiritual culture. The formation is very deep. And what is so important is that there is a community of sharing.”
That sharing is evident as Sister Nisreen hosts a discussion on the founder of her order. In her youth, she explains, Blessed Mary of the Passion experienced the loss of many beloved family members, including her mother. Yet, she felt her life was transformed by Jesus’ love, and felt called to help others, setting an example for many today.
The story resonates deeply with the Iraqi youth still experiencing the devastating effects of the war in their homeland.
During the discussion, one young group member remarks: “Despite all the sadness in Marie de la Passion’s life, her faith changed her. Now, in our lives we, too, need spiritual help and prayer. We feel desperate, lost, hopeless. Maybe one sign from God can clarify the way.”
Nermine, a 17-year-old wearing a grey hat to ward off the cold, chimes in with something of a prayer: “Marie de la Passion heard God’s voice and gave expression to it. We have questions about where we are going. God, please whisper in our hearts, so we will know.”
“Sometimes I wonder why I was brought to Jordan,” asks Yousef, who fled Baghdad after receiving death threats. “I am surrendering everything to God. In our lives, we need the light of God when we walk in the dark.”
Another young man named Rimon says he appreciated Blessed Mary’s story. “I like thinking how this relates to my own journey; despite the problems in her life, there was always God’s light there.”
On Tuesday mornings, the sisters hold regular meetings with Jordanian women at their convent, promoting spiritual formation through study, reflection and group discussion.
Sister Sana Samawi creates a warm, engaging atmosphere — interjecting when needed, but allowing one of the women, Esther Akrush, to lead the group discussion.
Sitting in a circle, about 20 women, ages 35 to 65, carry on a lively discussion on baptism following an annual visit by Jordan’s Catholic Church on the feats of the Epiphany to the recognized site of Jesus Christ’s baptism at the River Jordan, Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan.
Ms. Akrush, who taught at the College De La Salle School in Amman for more than 30 years, chose a text on baptism written by St. Gregory Palamas, a monk of the late Byzantine period.
“The Trinity was present at creation and during Jesus’ baptism,” Ms. Akrush says. “But because of the specific time and place of his earthly ministry, sometimes it’s hard to remember that Jesus exists outside of both, or isn’t limited to, either time or place.”
“God has no boundaries with time and space,” one of the women, Randa Sweileh, comments. “The human mind is limited in conceiving such a thing, but God isn’t limited.”
“Jesus’ role is to bring reconciliation between heaven and earth, God and humankind — the salvation of humanity achieved on the Cross,” Sister Sana adds.
“The subject on baptism and the Trinity was a bit difficult, but beautiful spiritually speaking,” Ms. Akrush says after the meeting. “We could stay away from subjects that might seem beyond our comprehension, but it’s important that we try to understand this essential point of our faith,” she says.
“The women are growing spiritually. I feel that when we engage in spiritual topics, they grasp and understand them quickly,” the former teacher says. “They are mature, great with prayer and meditation. A number say they wish the study were available twice a week, not just once.”
The group’s topics follow the liturgical calendar. “Every week, there is a different topic to discuss,” says Ms. Sweileh.
“There can be subjects that we don’t know much about, so along this way, we open our spirituality. With some subjects, like the Holy Trinity, I used to consider it in a more superficial way, but now I have a much deeper understanding. It comes from the questions we ask and from our discussion.”
Another participant, Loreece Batarseh, adds, “I sense the presence of God’s spirit lifting us up and bringing more revelations of who he is.”
“There is a strong sharing. The nuns help us to understand topics further than we may have studied some time ago,” she says, adding that they have been providing this service for decades. “We consider their convent like our home.”
Beyond studying theology and the Bible, the women’s group is also active in the community, visiting homes for the elderly and providing them with practical assistance, medicine and spiritual study.
Others, such as Ms. Sweileh, help Catholic teenage girls experiencing family problems at home, offering emotional support, school tutoring or preparing meals through the church-sponsored Mariam House ministry in Amman.
“What’s lovely is that there isn’t just great spiritual fellowship among them, but also good social welfare enterprise,” says Sister Sana. “Many are helping the poor in a variety of ways, including summer camps for the youth or providing funds for needed activities.
“They aren’t inward-focused; they are reaching out to those in need.”
In much the same way, Sister Sana served with Franciscan Missionaries of Mary in troubled areas of Syria — Raqqa, Aleppo and Damascus — before taking up her post in Amman last year.
“The goal for these women is to take responsibility for their discovery and learning along their spiritual walk. I want to see them following Jesus, enjoying a deep relationship with him in a profound way,” she says.
“This depth of spirituality will also impact and benefit the lives of their families and others they interact with, and for whom they are responsible. At the end of the day, they should take hold of their spiritual growth because they, too, are the church,” Sister Sana says.
Sister Nisreen says the Franciscan Missionaries have six sisters in Amman — a small part of an order of nearly 6,000 present in 100 convents across 76 countries.
Those still in Iraq also teach catechism and develop spiritual formation among the various Catholic denominations.
“The sisters are preparing catechism books for the Iraqis, who are keen to have the nuns teach their children,” Sister Nisreen says.
Ra’ed Omar, who will soon call Canada home, says he is not concerned about how he will carry out his spiritual formation in the West.
“There are people there who will aid us and hopefully bring us further along this path. Or something new can be started,” he says.
“It’s very well known in Iraq that Christians are forgiving and giving to others. This is the seed we carry with us wherever we go. For Christians, forgiveness is part of our tradition and upbringing. This faith shows that we are Christians.”
Based in the Middle East, Dale Gavlak has reported for CNEWA from Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.