ERBIL, IRAQ (CNA/EWTN News) - After spending his first full day in Erbil, Iraq, Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave a special message to men studying in Iraq's only remaining seminary for diocesan priests.
"You, you will be the apostles. You will be the heralds. You will help convert the world," Cardinal Dolan said April 9.
He spoke to the nearly 30 seminarians currently studying at St. Peter Patriarchal Seminary for the Chaldean Patriarchate in Erbil after having toured different projects that help the internally displaced and listening to their stories of suffering.
While some might be tempted to say that the Church is dying in Iraq, and that it is more alive in other areas, "we say to you no. Here is where the Church is alive."
"You are teaching us," the cardinal said. "So please hear us say we love you, we need you, we cannot forget you."
Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, spoke to the seminarians on his first full day in Iraqi Kurdistan, where he is currently on a pastoral visit intended to offer support and solidarity to families, Church leaders, priests and religious who were displaced as a result of ISIS attacks in 2014.
He is traveling in his capacity as chair of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) along with CNEWA board member Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, CNEWA President Msgr. John Kozar, and the Executive Director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New York, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan. CNA is also part of the delegation.
The seminary is the only one left in Iraq that provides formation for diocesan priests in the country, and is one of the many structures and projects supported by CNEWA. First established in Baghdad, the seminary was later moved to Erbil for security reasons, and is headed by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda.
Cardinal Dolan's visit to the seminary was the last activity on his packed itinerary for day one. Earlier in the day he paid a visit to a prefab school for displaced children run by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena as well as two kindergartens overseen by the order. He also visited a medical dispensary for the chronically ill and celebrated Mass at the Dominican Sisters' convent before meeting with families and care givers at a displacement center in Ain Qawa, which is currently home to some 213 Christian families.
Although the cardinal's words at the seminary were spoken to the young men studying there, they could easily have been directed to the families and individuals suffering due to two years of living in the cramped, overcrowded camp after being forced to flee their homes.
During the cardinal's visit to the displacement center, individuals shared with him the agony, frustration, anger and hopelessness that they feel.
One man said that while some say the situation has stabilized, he disagreed. "(I)t has not...we are still suffering, we are in misery, we want to go home," he said.
Similarly, one woman tearfully said that while the displaced Christian community would be willing to host the cardinal 10 times or more, what they really want is to go home, and begged him for some sort of timeline.
Cardinal Dolan responded by embracing those who spoke and thanked them for their continued faith.
In his words to the seminarians, the cardinal said that after spending the day at the various projects, he was inspired by the witness of the priests, who tirelessly serve the people and are "great models" of living Pope Francis' call for shepherds to be in the midst of their sheep.
He noted how one of the priests charged with the care of the camp, Father Bashar, had initially slept on a mattress outside when nearly 100,000 people poured into Erbil following ISIS' attack on their hometown of Qaraqosh, preferring to let the faithful stay indoors.
"That's the model of the priesthood, that's Jesus. To be with our people all the time," he said, adding that Archbishop Warda and the rest of the priests in the country "are very close to the people in difficult times."
Bishop Murphy also spoke briefly to the seminarians, saying that to see them all present in the seminary "gives me great hope for the future."
"I can see the strength of the faith that has brought you here," he said, noting that while times may be tough, difficulties are nothing new for the Church.
Even the apostles faced their own challenges and persecutions, but the inner strength of their faith gave them two "great gifts," the bishop said. These gifts, he explained, are "courage to speak the words of Jesus Christ and an inner serenity."
These two things go together, he said, "because when we have the confidence to speak what the Lord has sent us to speak, and we have then the inner sense of who we are as faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ, our lives have an inner integrity."
The bishop assured of his prayers for the seminarians and asked for theirs in return for the challenges the Church faces in the United States.
"There are challenges in the United States too, and we have to do our best to witness to Jesus Christ in our setting, just as you have to do it and will do it as members of the Chaldean Church as priests of Jesus Christ."
In April 9 comments to CNA, Archbishop Warda said that Cardinal Dolan's visit is one of love and hope in which "we really feel that we are not forgotten."
The archbishop said he knows the Christian and Catholic communities in the United States are praying for them, which "means a lot for us."
To know that they have not been abandoned brings confidence that the delegation "will really make all possible efforts to remind the politicians, to remind everyone, that there are persecuted, vulnerable communities in Iraq - Christians, Yazidis - and that we have to do something for them.
When Cardinal Dolan and his delegation see the situation firsthand, "they could tell the story differently," with personal experiences.
Archbishop Warda said that they are "brothers," and stressed that this brotherhood is the most important foundation to build on.
"When any brother feels and suffers any kind of sadness, the family can gather together, pray together, help each other to overcome (it)," he said.