Rosemary Ganley The Peterborough Examiner March 25, 2021
Pope Francis is a deeply enigmatic figure, very vexing these days.
I had just completed a rave review of his reconciling visit to Iraq, March 5-8, when I heard that he had signed his name on March 15 to an offensive statement condemning, once again, same-sex relations as “sinful.” Powerful and damning word, that. And mistaken.
He very much needs a Sexual Issues Advisory Council, preferably made up of women, only lay women, please. He has sought expert advice before, with the environment and with economics. Such wise moves have led to better statements.
Let’s talk about the first event: Francis’ March 5-8 visit to Iraq, that sad and troubled Asian country of 40 million people, mostly Shi’a Muslims. It showed leadership.
Iraq dominated our consciousness a few years ago. Saddam Hussein was the long-running tyrant leader. The U.S., under President George W Bush, citing the pretext that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction, invaded the country in 2003. That was the “shock and awe” period. Saddam was ousted. Instability followed.
At one time, 120,000 American troops were in Iraq: casualties for the Iraqis were in the tens of thousands, and 5000 Americans were killed. Then, many U.S. soldiers brought home personal traumas.
There followed 15 years when ISIL or ISIS terrorized Iraq, taking out its fundamentalist venom on the Christian minority (300,000 in a population of 40 million).
Francis, the messenger of peace, decided, against much advice, and at age 84, to make a visit. There were security concerns, and health concerns. He said that “the One who inspired me” to take his 9th trip to a Muslim-majority country after no travel for 18 months, was “the One who would protect the people.” These are the phrases of a religious leader of course, but no one doubts Francis’ sincerity nor his courage.
Seventy-five journalists were on his trip. Many say that the trip, historic and brave though it was, will always have an asterisk attached to it: disease outbreaks may occur.
He is always well-briefed. He was welcomed by the president of Iraq, Barham Salih. He called on the reclusive Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the 90-year-old, religious leader. Sistani has the loyalty of both groups, the Sunnis and the Shi’a. The Shi’ites represent just 20 percent of Muslims. Their difference with the Sunnis refers to the true inheritors of the Prophet Mohammed.
Francis described al-Sistani as “a wise man, a man of God, who did good for my soul.” A young Muslim scholar at Columbia University, Asad Dandia, said the visit was very well-received by Muslims around the world. “It was historic for the papacy,” he said.
The Pope has now made friends with the head of the Shi’a and with the Cairo-based Imam of the Sunni, Ahmed al Tayeb, whom he called on in 2017. He does not talk theologically on these trips. He does not talk of the divine or of prayer. He is political, talking about fraternity and citizenship. His effort to encourage amity among two great world religions is politics at its highest level.
The pope walked with a limp and told reporters on the plane back to Rome he was very tired. “An arm up in greeting for long periods of time is wearing,” said reporter Josh McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter. "I find that by spending time following the Pope’s travels, I learn about our world." There were poignant moments, such as when the Pope visited the ancient city of Ur in northern Iraq, the city where the patriarch Abraham was born. And the visit to Erbil, to a square where ISIS radicals killed Christians in 2010-2013, driving huge numbers of Christians out of the country. Iraq is still in reconstruction from those ISIS years, suffering shortages of electricity, water and housing.
The Pope plans for Lebanon in September.
But many commentators say this latest announcement on sex, so widely rejected, may be the straw that really does break the camel’s back of a huge church.