Before I begin, I would like to give a word of thanks, and to make a request.
First, I give my sincere thanks to his Excellency Bishop Burns, President Sanford, and to everyone at the University of Dallas, not only for this honor today, but more importantly for all the solidarity you have shown with the Christians of Iraq these past years. It is these examples of solidarity which have given us so much Hope to persevere through these difficult times. (Thanks provided in Aramaic.)
My request is to all my graduating brothers and sisters here today. Every one of you has loved ones who have helped you make today’s accomplishment possible. From the time you were born up until this very moment, there are people who have supported you, guided you, taught you and loved you. I am sure that you all know who these people are. My request to you is this: Do not let these next days pass without finding a way to thank these people, both in person and in your prayers of gratitude and thanks for this day.
And from myself to all of the family and friends of the graduates, I give you my own thanks and blessing for the many sacrifices you have made to make this day possible. I have no doubt that many of these sacrifices have been unseen and un-noticed by others in this world. Such is the way of most sacrifice. But you know in your hearts, and our Creator has watched as well, what these sacrifices have been. God bless you for them.
So now to my graduating brothers and sisters, you now have this special day which is also your own. You know the sacrifices that you yourselves have made to make this day possible. I congratulate you all. Please know that as fellow graduates you will always be welcome to visit with me, and maybe even come to work with us in our mission, anytime you would like to come to Erbil – I hope I will see some of you soon.
But truly, what lies before us in these difficult and even dark times? Who will lead us, and what kind of leadership will that be? Where will the path to that leadership be found? I believe this leadership will be found among you. In these last years in Iraq I have placed a special faith in our young people and perhaps their experience may be of help to you now.
In these last years in Iraq, since the displacement and genocide of 2014, our young people have faced many difficult times. War, displacement, genocide, economic disaster and now pandemic. But through all of it, they have had their faith in God, and their faith in each other.
There were many difficult decisions for our young people to make, decisions which would determine the future of their lives. Should they flee to safety in another place, should they remain in their country and bear witness, and what would that witness look like, what would it be?
If they had tried to make these decisions on their own, as individuals relying only on themselves, it would have been impossible to think clearly on the proper path. But in placing their trust in God and remaining in community with their brothers and sisters in faith, they found their path, and they have now become leaders through their daily commitment to work in service to all.
Yes, my young brothers and sisters, you should know that whatever future exists for our Christian community in Iraq, it rests with our young people, people not much older than you are now. And it rests with them because at the time of greatest peril they placed their faith fully in God and surrounded themselves with others who were committed in the same way. In this way they found the path to service, and by walking on the path of service together, and with humility together, they have become leaders together. So too is the path before you now, in the witness which will be yours to bring in this very broken world.
Many of you may have watched the Mass of the Holy Father, Pope Francis this past March, when he came to Erbil and celebrated Mass to over 10,000 people in an outdoor stadium. You might think that such a large production required a great many people and you are right. In the case of our Mass in Erbil, it was the work of 300 of our young people, all volunteers, all working together.
Of the many memories I have of that special day, I will share one with you now. At the close of the Mass, after the people had all left, our young people all remained. They had been working 16 hours a day without stop for three weeks in preparation, and this in a time of pandemic with all its obstacles and difficulties. At the close of this beautiful Mass they had every right to be tired, to congratulate themselves, and to go home and begin a well-deserved rest.
But instead, they stayed at the stadium, all of them. And what did they do? They began to clean it. They were not required to do this. The stadium belonged to the government, and workers would come the next day to do the cleaning already. But for our young people this Mass had been their responsibility, and their opportunity to serve, and serve humbly. And so they turned their attention to the trash left behind around the stadium, and with joy, they cleaned. And when the local media understood what was taking place, they captured the moment and shared it throughout Iraq with one simple statement: These people deserve respect.
Truly my friends, it is through our humble service, and our humble witness, that we lead.
I will give you another example
On August 6, 2014, ISIS attacked the Christian towns of the Nineveh plain in Northern Iraq. Most of these towns were about sixty miles from Erbil, the home of our Archdiocese. When ISIS attacked most of the Christians fled to Erbil. They had only minutes to leave their houses, and when they arrived in Erbil they were mostly on foot. In less than 24 hours, over 100,000 of them arrived at our doorsteps, and they had nothing.
I watched as they arrived, filling up our churches and streets. What could we do? Well, somehow, through the mercy of God and the help of many friends from around the world, we survived these days. But something I remember very clearly from those times was the sacrifice, joy and teamwork of our young people, who had to do their work looking directly into the face of absolute darkness.
In this time, they would seem to have had every right to fall into despair, anger, hatred, revenge and retribution. But they faced down their darkness with other means: forgiveness, mercy, humility, compassion, love, and an acceptance of personal responsibility for the displaced community around them. It is for this reason that our community is still alive in Iraq, that it still has a chance to survive, perhaps to still even thrive. It is for this reason that I am here with you today. Truly, as the rest of Iraq is beginning to understand: These people deserve respect.
As for myself, in these past years I have learned many things about the importance of young people to the survival of community. I will share some of them with you now.
First, when faced with most great challenges in this world, you will need a team to share in facing the challenge. Seek out those who love you truly because of who you are, not what you have. Team yourself with them. Remember, even Christ had twelve apostles.
Second, give yourself and your team a chance to achieve great things. Remember always that you are created in the image of God, which means you are capable of great things, and give yourself a moment of celebration when you achieve it. For you it will start from today. Celebrate your achievement today together with your team of people who helped you to make it possible. This Archbishop gives you his blessing for it.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, do not let your lives be wasted by following crowds which walk only on a selfish and destructive path. Choose who you follow with great care and consider what lies at the end of that path. If in your heart and in your prayers, you know your path is different, then have the courage to lead in a different direction, towards light, towards hope.
Finally, remember that Regret can be a terrible thing. In the lives you choose to lead now you will be faced with many, many difficult decisions. In reaching these decisions do not be afraid to make them in community with those whose values you trust, and in prayer with the God of mercy and compassion who has created us all. In your actions and decisions, think about what you might say to young graduates 30 years from today. I hope you will be able to tell them about your life’s journey and that you will not use the word “regret” a lot.
I urge you all to continue learning and find some way to serve. Of course, you will all soon be looking for jobs, and the first reaction is often to look for a job which will grant you happiness and social privileges. However, dear brothers and sisters, do not ever forget that we have a collective responsibility toward our world, a world yearning for peace, and education is what makes peace possible. Never stop learning or looking for ways to serve.
In Christian teaching our faith tells us it is not about us, but about us willing the good of the other. Through our faith we can bring our God-given talents to serve and love others and, at the same time, this is our own healing road to our own salvation. Through our humble service we will lead.
Please pray for me and the persecuted and marginalized people around the world, as I will pray for you. I wish you all the joy and happiness that this world can bring. God bless you all.