We have all been hearing a great deal in the news about what is happening in Iraq.
Before it began to make headline news I received a call from a sweet, young, nun who introduced herself as Sister Christine. Sister Christine offered me an invitation to speak at “Awake, My Soul” – a Chaldean conference in Farmington, Michigan. My first, thought was I would be honored to speak at your conference. My next thought was Who are the Chaldeans?
I pride myself on knowing a thing, or two, about the Catholic Church. However, the Church has so many treasures and history that it is not hard to study very often and still find yourself struggling to swim in an ocean of knowledge. I figured the Chaldeans were an Eastern rite of the Catholic Church and Sister Christine confirmed my assumption. I was surprised and embarrased to say I had never heard of the Chaldean rite of the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, many Catholics in America are unaware – or tend to forget – that the “Roman” Catholic Church is only a rite of the entire Catholic Church. Most people associate the Roman Catholic Church with the Catholic Church because it is by far the biggest rite within the Church and because the Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, resides in Rome.
I live in San Antonio and we only have one active Eastern Catholic Church that I am aware of – a Maronite Church. There is a Byzantine community that is striving to get a Church going in San Antonio but that’s it. Two churches. It’s not hard to see why most people who live in areas of the United States where there is no presence of Eastern Rite churches have no idea there is such a thing as Eastern Catholics.
Eastern Rite Catholics are 100% Catholic. They are no less Catholic than Roman Catholics. They have different traditions, a different language, and their Mass can be very different in regards to aesthetics. However, the content is the same. It’s the same Bible. It’s the same Eucharist. It’s the same faith. They are in full communion with the Pope and the rest of the Catholic Church.
Who Are The Chaldeans?
Chaldean Catholics come from northern Iraq and carry with them a very ancient history. In fact, the Chaldeans maintain the Aramaic language – the native tongue of our Lord Jesus Christ – although it would have been somewhat different.
The Chaldeans are the Christians who have been in the news lately. They are the ones who are facing persecution by the ISIS radical muslim group. For the most part, they are the ones being slaughtered, raped, beheaded and forced to convert to Islam or flee for their lives.
When news broke out about the terrible persecution of the Iraqi Christians. I felt a great responsibility to inspire, encourage, and love the Chaldeans at the “Awake, My Soul” conference.
What happened was just the opposite.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was focused on delivering my talk to all the young people present and I was anxious to meet everyone. I arrived and was immediately showered with a great deal of love and an extremely warm welcome. I also instantly bonded with some of the organizers of the conference. There were hundreds of people in attendance from several Chaldean Churches in the area. I was surrounded by Iraqi Catholics.
The Chaldean culture reminded me so much of Mexican culture. Many of them loved to embrace – something I shared in common. They were a very affectionate people. When friends and family members hugged – some of them gave a kiss on each cheek. They had me laughing. They were passionate about their faith and they were a beautiful people. I loved hearing them interweave Arabic and Chaldean/Aramaic along with their English.
The talk went great (I’m planning on posting it on the site soon). The young people received my story very well and were on fire afterward but the best experience of the conference, for me, came that evening. They held a Eucharistic procession around the grounds of the church. Hundreds of people, carrying small fire-lit candles, were singing praise to Jesus as our Priest held him high above his head in the front of the crowd. As I walked, and sang, I beheld the beauty of the event. Just hours earlier I ended my talk to the young people with a quote from St. John Paul II at World Youth Day in 2000.
Dear friends, to believe in Jesus today, to follow Jesus as Peter, Thomas, and the first Apostles and witnesses did, demands of us, just as it did in the past, that we take a stand for him, almost to the point at times of a new martyrdom: the martyrdom of those who, today as yesterday, are called to go against the tide in order to follow the divine Master, to follow “the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev 14:4) – 15th World Youth Day Vigil of Prayer
Here I was, in the midst of a community of people whose friends, relatives, and ancestors have been terrorized and persecuted because of their faith in Christ. Even though only a few of the people present were in Iraq during the persecution I felt that I was in the midst of a community with a deeply profound sense of a what it means to be a witness to the faith. Here we all were… just hours after reading St. John Paul II’s words, “to follow Jesus as the first witnesses did, demands of us that we take a stand for him, almost to the point at times of a new martyrdom.. the martyrdom of those who are called to follow the divine Master, to follow ‘the Lamb wherever he goes'”. There we were following the Lamb, in the Eucharist, wherever he went and figuratively standing with our persecuted brothers and sisters who have shown us what it means to be martyrs and true witnesses to the faith.
I set out to inspire, encourage, and love the Chaldeans at the “Awake, My Soul” conference but I found myself extremely inspired and encouraged by the Chaldeans. In the midst of all the news stories about the dwindling population of Christians in Iraq, in the midst of all the sadness and pain, here was a thriving community of Iraqi Catholics. As I sat in Mass that evening and listened to the chants of the Chaldean rite, as I watched young and old people bow their heads in deep and genuine prayer, I realized how blessed I was to be a witness to this community.
Although the persecution of the Chaldeans in Iraq is very sad and troubling it is encouraging to know that they have such a strong community here in America. Many of these Chaldeans are young people with a great thirst for Truth, and for Christ, and they are receiving great education and training in what it means to be true witnesses to the faith. You may be tempted to think that God is absent during the conflict in the Middle East and that the Chaldeans are dying out. Well, you would be wrong. God is setting them on fire in Michigan and I imagine one day we will hear great stories come from this community.
I am grateful for my new Chaldean friends and I pray that they be courageous witnesses for the sake of all Catholics.
The “Awake, My Soul” conference is held each year by the Eastern Catholic Re-Evangelization Center. Visit them at http://www.ecrc.us/