Pope Francis is embarking on a historic trip to Iraq.
The Holy Father is traveling just days after several rockets were launched targeting U.S. troops amid deteriorating security in the region. He is going into an area where the first doses of vaccine just arrived two days ago.
But Pope Francis says he is on a mission to make up for years of war and terrorism. For him, the chance for peace outweighs the risk.
In a recorded message to Iraqis before departing Rome, the Holy Father called himself a penitent pilgrim seeking peace.
There are more than 300,000 Christians living in Iraq. The pope prayed for them in the church he visited just after his election, the Basilica of St. Mary Major.
“That number has really been shrinking since the Gulf War and our invasion of Iraq,” Chicago archbishop Cardinal Blase Cupich said. “It used to be 1.4 million now it’s under 400,000. This is one of the consequences of the war that John Paul II tried to get across to the U.S. government.”
Seventy-five journalists are making the trek to document a trip once planned and cancelled by Pope John Paul II.
“The violence was such that he wasn’t able to do it,” Cupich said.
Gerard O’Connell, a Rome-based Vatican journalist is among those taking the papal plane with high hopes this pilgrimage will be void of violence and make history instead for all the right reasons.
“We’ve got confidence that the Iraqi government has been very keen for the pope to go because, for a long time, they have been seen as a country of death in a way of things just not working,” O’Connell said. “And they hope he can help it to resurrect. … The Pope is walking in the unknown and we are going with him. And he’s got courage and faith and believes his life is in the hands of God. And I think we are in the same boat.”
On Wednesday there was an attack there targeting us troops, so is it safe for our Holy Father to go?
“There is the dual risk of not only possible violence, but also the pandemic,” Cupich said. “And he feels it’s important in this moment to support the persecuted people. He calls this a “martyred land.” They are long suffering people on all sides of the spectrum.”
And the people are young. It is the youth the pope is targeting.
“He wants to inject hope into the people. Fifty-seven percent of the population of this country are under the age 25. 40% are under the age 15,” O’Connell said. “It’s a very young country. These young people they need hope. It’s his aim, desire to give hope to people.”
The pontiff will not wave to them from his pope mobile as is customary. Instead an armored vehicle will transport him with a heavy security detail.
“I don’t think he’s naive about the risk,” Cupich said. “But he’s placing his trust in God that this effort can bring about some good and people will be kept safe. He’s a man who makes his own decisions.”
The decision to go now, with virtually no Covid vaccines administered and people likely to gather in masses to see the leader of the Catholic Church, was debated at length in Rome.
So, is this a super-spreader event, not necessarily spreading peace but spreading virus?
“The Holy Father wants to make sure the people of the world understand the only way we are going to get out of this pandemic, but also of the many tensions that afflict society and the world, is if we truly encounter one another,” Cupich said. “If we take the risk of coming together despite the differences that we have. I’ve asked people in these days before to keep his safety and the safety of everyone in their prayer and I would make that appeal here today.”
The pope’s flight departs at midnight Chicago time arriving in Baghdad early morning Chicago time.