“When it was announced that the holy father was going to go to Iraq, Archbishop (Bashar Matti Warda) reached out to myself, Dr. (Daniel) Kempton and Dr. (Tiffany) Boury and asked if we would be interested in being his guests for the visit of the holy father,” said the Rev. Dave Pivonka, TOR, recalling how their recent visit to Iraq started.
“Obviously, there were some risks entailed with going to Iraq,” said Pivonka. “But when it was all said and done, we just had a sense that it was what God wanted us to do.”
Warda, Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Pivonka in fall 2019, meaning that the Catholic University of Erbil and Franciscan University of Steubenville would mutually benefit from the development of new programs and cultural exchanges. This was how Warda’s relationship with Pivonka and Franciscan University started, leading to the visit to Iraq.
On the first full day of their visit, Kempton, vice president of academic affairs, and Boury, director of the masters in Catholic leadership and assistant professor of education, toured the area with Pivonka.
They visited historical locations such as the Nineveh plains and the Mar Mattai Monastery. They also had lunch with groups of Christian families in the Chaldean rite, a community that has experienced severe persecution in the area.
“About 10 years ago there was roughly a million Christians, and today there’s around 200,000 Christians,” said Pivonka. “The Christian communities (were) largely decimated in the most recent (insurgencies) and (by) ISIS’s control all over Iraq. So just to hear their stories was really profound.”
In the days leading up to Pope Francis’ closing Mass in Erbil, Pivonka reflected on and discussed the potential impact of the pope’s visit to Iraq with Warda, especially after hearing the stories of long-suffering Christians in the area.
“Nothing good is ever said about Iraq,” said Pivonka. “So one of the questions I asked the archbishop (was), ‘How will we know if this is a success, the holy father’s visit?’ He said, ‘It’s already a success because the world is talking about Christianity in Iraq.’”
“I heard a hundred times, ‘I can’t believe the pope is coming to us,’” said Pivonka with a smile. “We’re used to it. He comes to the United States all the time. No pope has ever gone to Iraq.”
The closing Mass, which Pivonka described as “very beautiful,” took place Sunday, March 7, in the Hanso Fariri stadium.
“I’ve been to probably 50 papal events,” said Pivonka. “There was nothing like this before.”
At one point in the Mass, while Francis was preaching, there was a great outburst of cheering. Pivonka asked a priest next to him who spoke English what Francis had said. The priest replied, “Christ is alive in Iraq, and the Church is alive in Iraq.”
“It was … like this shell just got broken,” said Pivonka, remembering the joyful atmosphere of the stadium. “I think just by the (pope’s) presence there was a freedom that people experienced; they felt like they were seen, they were listened to, they were heard. They mattered. All of that took place in the context of this liturgy.”
In reflecting upon his visit in Iraq as a whole, Pivonka, after pausing for a while with his eyes turned downward contemplatively, said, “I was moved by a people that suffered so profoundly, but still exhibited joy. They don’t let the little things bother them. It’s given me perspective.”
Pivonka recalled how one young woman came up to him the night before he left and asked him to relay a message back to Catholics in America.
“She said, ‘Our churches have been destroyed. Our families are refugees. Don’t take things for granted,’” said Pivonka. “That’s something we need to continue to pray about.”
Despite these situational differences between Catholics in America and those in Iraq, Pivonka emphasized how Francis’ visit was a symbol of unity among all the members of the Catholic Church.
“What was important was that the holy father was ‘the father,’” said Pivonka. “So you’ve got this American Catholic and you’ve got this Iraqi Catholic, and (Francis) really does bring us together as the holy father.”
“I was really proud to be Catholic,” said Pivonka, bringing his reflection on the visit to a close. “The whole world was looking at what was going on, and I was really proud … to be a member of the Body of Christ.”