Mea maxima culpa

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Article War and Peace
Among the many victims of the Iraq war have been our own fellow Catholics.

I have a confession to make: Back in 2003, when the Bush administration directed our national eyes to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, I didn’t resist greatly. I watched with interest as then-Secretary of State Colin Powell presented our “evidence” to the United Nations.

I was probably more against the Iraq War than for it, but I was swayed by the possibility that the “bad man” in Baghdad was pursuing weapons of mass destruction. I perhaps even comforted myself with the belief that our high-tech army would certainly win a quick and painless victory. Little did I know that, along with hundreds of thousands of Muslim Iraqis and the devastating injuries to and deaths of our own American troops, among the “collateral damage” would be my fellow Christians.

I was reminded of my tacit approval of the war in March, when the world learned of the kidnapping and death of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Radho of Mosul, which roughly coincided with the fifth anniversary of the war and the 4,000th American military death. The violence perpetrated against Radho, a Chaldean Catholic bishop, was but a single instance of the destruction wreaked upon the Christians of Iraq, once a protected minority but now driven into exile by extremists.

When I met some Iraqi Chaldean Catholics last fall in Jordan, I could not escape the feeling that somehow I was personally responsible for their situation. My silence had contributed to the destruction of their church, a unique and beautiful part of Christ’s body now shattered and scattered to the winds.

To make matters worse the ancient churches of Iraq—Chaldean, Assyrian Orthodox, and others—will likely never be restored. As families flee to the corners of the earth—a daughter to Sweden, parents to Australia, grandchildren to Canada—their way of being Christian is evaporating as quickly as their family ties. They may find welcome in the Roman Catholic Church, but their unique voices will struggle to survive.

How to do penance for this violence to the Body of Christ, not to mention God’s other and no less valuable daughters and sons? What act of reparation can I or anyone make for this sin against the church?

St. Paul warns us in First Corinthians that we risk eating and drinking to our own condemnation if our Eucharist does not reflect the charity it is meant to embody (11:29). The Corinthians had permitted a division in their Eucharist in which the rich enjoyed a feast while the poor were left with scraps. But not only are our fellow Christians poor and exiled, our own country is the direct cause of their misery. What might St. Paul write to us today?

I am at a loss for how to make amends for my role in this disaster. A friend of mine has begun a program to bring Iraqi college students to the United States to complete educations disrupted by five years of war. Others lobby to secure more U.S. visas for Iraqi refugees, for which so many in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq—including my translator in Jordan, Amjad—are desperate.

These are all good first steps, but greater measures will be needed. One is left to wonder how an ancient church, once destroyed, can ever be rebuilt.

Though I have yet to find my penance, I can at least say that I have found my repentance. I repent of the belief that war can solve the problems of the world. I repent of holding violence in reserve as a means of achieving an end. And I repent of any silence of mine that has reduced my own brothers and sisters to exile and poverty.

I do not think I will ever again be able to contemplate something called a “just war.” Perhaps some new Hitlerian monster will rise up and change my mind, but I think Pope John XXIII was right when he argued in his 1963 encyclical Pacem en Terris that, because of the power of modern weaponry, “it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.

But I am still left with guilt for my role in this human catastrophe. I can only hope that on the day of salvation the Christians of Iraq, and the rest of its people, may show me the mercy Jesus promises to those who seek forgiveness.

This article appeared in the June 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 6, page 8).