Forming a Few Good Men

In the midst of affliction and suffering a seminary in Iraq continues to develop young men who want to make a difference.

text by Dale Gavlak
photos: St. Peter’s Seminary

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The four-year-old’s large, brown eyes stared plaintively at us as we crammed into the back seat of his father’s dilapidated car. Nine years of crippling United Nations sanctions have taken their toll on nearly every vehicle in Iraq. Invariably, a headlight or some more important mechanism is broken or recycled because of a lack of spare parts. Our car crawled across Baghdad’s urban sprawl. From time to time it emitted pitiful sputters.

In the front seat, a priest held the child, Rami, tenderly in his lap and gave him something with which to amuse himself during the long ride to St. Peter’s Chaldean Patriarchal Seminary.

“Rami, ya Rami!” Father Farid dangled a small wooden crucifix in front of Rami. The child grabbed the cross in his chubby little hands and kissed it. This small act of affection manifests his family’s faith in Jesus Christ.

Christians number just 800,000 out of Iraq’s nearly 24 million people; Catholics make up the majority of Christians, with some 640,000 faithful. But, as in other parts of the Middle East, Iraq’s Christian community is an intricate mosaic of diverse communities. Catholics alone boast four different churches: Armenian, Chaldean, Latin and Syrian. The largest of these is the Chaldean Church, which shares the traditions and rites of the Assyrian Church of the East. There are also smaller Orthodox and Protestant congregations.

We entered the seminary’ peaceful compound after a dusty trek across town. Father Louis Sako, the short, sprightly Rector of St. Peter’s, greeted us warmly on our arrival.

Raised in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul, Father Sako teaches 56 seminarians – all of whom receive support from CNEWA – the rudiments of the faith, church history and philosophy. The 40-something priest holds two doctorates – one from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and the other from the Sorbonne in Paris. He also trained in Germany.

Although Father Sako’s intellectual capabilities clearly stand out, it is his humility and devotion to Christ’s calling to serve that immediately strike the visitor. Father Sako says his mission is to help in the spiritual formation of Iraqi men, mainly in their mid to late 20’s, so they will become suitable priests for the third millennium.

“What we need are really good priests – open, dynamic and willing to work with their people. They should be for their people, and not for themselves,” he emphasized.

Father Sako says some of the men who begin theological training arrive with their own problems, which require proper handling. Little by little, however, they come to understand their vocation and what it takes to become a good priest. For Father Sako, it means having an open mind, a deep spirituality and a sincere desire to help people.

“In Iraq, there is no hope,” he added. “Everyone now thinks of leaving the country because there is no future. Even the clergy want to get out, to study or be appointed to some Chaldean or Syrian parish in the West, America, Australia, all over,” lamented the slightly graying priest.

But Father Sako believes that instilling a vision for Christian service and a commitment to Iraq and its people is the only way to empower his seminarians and the church.

“The church has a missionary dimension – otherwise there is no church.

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Tags: Iraq Middle East Christians Chaldean Church Vocations (religious) Seminaries