· Vatican City ·

A land returning to breathe

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12 March 2021

On the return flight from Baghdad to Rome it is impossible not to think of the journey Abraham undertook when he set out from Ur of the Chaldeans toward a promised land where his countless descendants were to flourish. Watching from the window one is struck by the harshness of the mostly desert territory passing by, and thus the vital beauty of the waterways stands out even more. It is the rugged, extreme charm of Mesopotamia, “the land between rivers”, the two great rivers: the Euphrates and the Tigris which passes through Baghdad itself. This same image, the rivers, which had accompanied the start of the journey, accompanies us at the end as well: the water which brings life and the desert, death, all around.

The first river we encountered was that of blood which flowed out of the church of Our Lady of Salvation, the scene of the massacre of 48 Christians during Mass in 2010, and we were aided by the prophecy of Ezekiel, who lived and is buried in this very land, with the images of a river flowing right from the temple with powerful waters, such that “everywhere the river goes every living creature which swarms will live” (Ez 47:9). The setting for Pope Francis, who on Friday afternoon entered that church sprinkling holy water, evoked that image of rebirth, or rather, of resurrection.

It is this image, the sensation that remains at the end of this journey so dense with episodes, charm, meaning: a sensation of resurrection. Here again we are aided by the prophet, master of the house, Ezekiel, who foresees the death and resurrection in that land and describes it with powerful images: the valley full of dry bones that came back to life listening to his prophesy: “Again he said to me, … Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet.... Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel” (Ez 37:4-12).

What the whole world experienced in these three days of the Papal journey on Iraqi soil was a grand scene — powerful as only joy knows how to be — of resurrection. A desolate land, devastated by war and terrorism, abandoned by the rest of the world, returning to breathe, its heart to beat, to stand up, to walk. Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of the Chaldeans expressed it effectively at the end of Mass in the stadium in Erbil, where more than 10,000 people warmly welcomed the Pope’s arrival from Rome: “Holy Father, we thank you for your courage. Your courage now flows within us”. Courage, like a river which, by flowing, brings life to where death once prevailed. This is the first of the effects (there will be many, here prophecy is simple) that Pope Francis’ journey will develop in time to come.

Andrea Monda