Pope Francis is breaking new ground these days in his pastoral visit to Iraq. He visits Iraq as a pilgrim, fulfilling a long-held dream of his recent predecessors Pope saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, to walk in the footsteps of Abraham, our father in faith. Another reason the Pope is visiting Iraq is to confirm the persecuted and afflicted Christians there in the faith, to show them solidarity.

They have watched the Christian presence in Iraq dwindle and they have been subject to continuous, extremist violence for many years. A third reason the Pope has gone to Iraq is to witness to dialogue and fraternity among different religious traditions. The Pope will speak with Muslim leaders and he will indicate to all people of faith the way of dialogue and fraternity.

Franciscans are one with the Pope in these goals. Saint Francis left Italy in 1219 to begin a dialogue with the Sultan Malik al Kamil, at a time when religious wars were raging in the middle east. Since 1217 the Franciscans have been present in Syria and since 1342 the Pope has granted the Franciscans the privilege of caring for the holy places associated with Jesus and the early Church. This ministry has required a patient and sometimes courageous commitment to dialogue and a witness to fraternity.

In words which are as meaningful today as they were when Saint Francis wrote them eight centuries ago, the friars are admonished by Saint Francis, that ‘When they go about the world they do not quarrel, nor contend in words, nor condemn others: but let them be meek, peaceful and modest, gentle and humble, speaking courteously to everyone, as is becoming’. (The Rule of the Friars Minor, chapter three).

In this spirit Pope Francis has gone to Iraq. Each harsh and judgmental words expressed casually on social media increases the climate of suspicion, enmity and grievance, weakening the good work of dialogue and fraternity. As we continue to journey in Lent may we commit to the way of dialogue and fraternity and guard our words.

Friar Liam