Letter to the Iraqi Chaldean Bishops and Priests at their Spiritual Retreat: “Come and see” (John 1: 46)
8-12 July 2019, Ankawa
Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako
Following and being a disciple of Jesus Christ is an act of faith and love, rather than an Idea or “manners”. The Charisma of consecrated person demands that he measures himself to the full measure of the stature of Christ, not to himself or his desires and ambitions. The devotee has to respond to the call of God by “Here I am: ad sum” just like Samuel (1 Samuel 3: 4) and to focus his daily effort on taking something from Christ and add it to himself so that he gradually transforms into Him. Especially for the priest, whose hands are anointed with the Holy Chrism Oil, to resemble Christ.
- Our identity as consecrated people has an absolute connection to Jesus Christ, who is our example and the foundation of our salvation. Our choice for Jesus is a matter of love, which should be more than anything else in the world so as to be at His disposal, that is why we devoted ourselves freely and completely to Him. This kind of dedication is born of the womb of faith, Gospel, prayer and grow up gradually reaching to the extent of the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4: 13). His presence, frees us from anxiety and fear, and gives us the ability to overcome it. On the other hand, most of our “faith-related” problems, when diagnosed seriously are due to the lukewarm relation with Christ.
- Spiritual retreat is an annual event, necessary for the solitude – stillness in order to get out of the administrative and routine stuff; to meet with ourselves and with each other, to pray and read the reality in front of God. Retreat is a time for “taming” ourselves, awakening our hearts, maturing and reviving thoughtfully, spiritually, socially and ecclesiastically. It is an internship project that aims to learn from Christ, by attentively listening to Him and obey Him. Listening enables the listener and speaker to establish a deep relationship between them, especially if the speaker “the inspirational” is the Holy Spirit.
- Following the Lord Jesus Christ is a free response to His call; to walk in His footsteps with honesty and joy; stick to Him; accompany Him; read His words and meditate on them. All of the above, increases our knowledge of Christ; deepens our love for Him and strengthen the friendship between us. As a result, we rush to commit ourselves to serving others (Acts 20: 35, Matthew Ch. 25). Following Jesus Christ requires the entry through the “narrow door” (Matthew 7: 13), which is not a geographical place, but Jesus Himself (John 10: 9). Such radical following “leave everything and follow me” (Luke 18: 18-25), will help us walking by Him, strengthening us in facing difficulties and challenges and protecting us from living on the “side-lines” of our consecration. Here, I would like to stress the importance of the priest’s relationship with Christ as a foundation for his relationship with his people
- Whatever we do without an affiliation with Jesus Christ is like a body without spirit. This basic spiritual experience should be conveyed to others, as Philip did to Nathanael. “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, we have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth”. “Philip replied: Come and see”? (John 1: 45-46). Therefore, we cannot effectively preach about Jesus unless we enter into likeness to Him. In this regard, Clement of Alexandria (in his book “Pedagogues”) stated that: “Let us resemble the “Word” in all our actions and behaviors, He will be our example and role model, and His inspiration are methods and systems that enable us to plant the seeds of eternity in our souls … Christ aims through this to educate us and all humanity”
- It is a great “loss” to see sometimes, consecrated people have no testimony to share. I would urge them all to preserve the “spirituality” of devotion that unfortunately began to decline, affecting negatively the number of vocations. Yes, we do have difficulties and pains, but isn’t sufficient “the grace of God” (2 Corinthians 12: 9). So, let us hold on the spirit of hope that differentiates, amazes and thanks. At the same time, we should not let the spirit of the world (personal ambitions, rumors, social media and the western liberal extremist ideas), ruin our trust, relationships and harmony. Our folks are looking for joyful and happy devoted shepherds who understand their reality, not pessimistic and gloomy priests and bishops: “Always be joyful, then, in the Lord; I repeat, be joyful” (Philippians 4: 4). Frankly, when we miss our joy, we have to look for the cause inside us and not elsewhere. Thus, we need to nurture our heart permanently.
- Ambitions: Why did not I become a bishop?
Some clerics have ambitions to become bishops or …, unfortunately, they become preoccupied by promotion for the sake of promotion that turns to an obsession and imprisons them, controlling their thoughts and stances. When such individuals found that their “dreams” did not come true, they tumble, complain, criticize Church leaders and live bitterly. For those, I would say: “As a priest, you won’t “gain” dignity and prestige when you become a bishop or a patriarch, for the actual dignity is acquired by love, service and being a giver in addition to the enlightenment role you play”. This is the priest who leaves a clear imprint in his history, of whom we have many “lively” examples. I believe that this subject deserves to be self-reviewed by everyone.
As you know our beloved priests “episcopate” is a special vocation and a spontaneous call from God through the Church. It is neither an honor nor a merit – a reward and is not as easy as those who have ambitions sees it. I repeat to all, the nomination for episcopate takes place in the Synod through free and secret ballot voting system.
Finally, I would like to remind you that, for the vocation to be effective and not nominal, it requires psychological, spiritual, pastoral and social preparations. Besides, higher education; leadership and fatherly spirit; brotherly touch; ceaseless joy; willingness to sacrifice and give; hide from spotlight “kenosis”; as well as participation in a teamwork and mission, are all needed.
In closing, let us thank God that the majority of our priests are committed to their priesthood and serve their community with humility, generosity and joy. Our free and deep spiritual stance should be derived mainly, from celebrating the Eucharist with its’ universal dimension, rather than ritual practices that have no influence on our hearts and from personal and collective prayers. This reminds us of Pope Francis statement: “Without prayer no one can be a disciple of Jesus; without prayer we cannot be Christians”! (General audience of 19 June 2019).