Letter to the Friends of al-Khalil Community at Sulaymaniya, November 23rd, 2012

Deir Maryam el-Adhra, Sulaymaniah, Kurdistan Region, Iraq

Letter to the Friends of al-Khalil Community

November 23rd, 2012

Dear Friends,

May this letter reach you in the Lord’s peace, and the happiness and peace of your families and occupations.

We anticipate slightly on our traditional Christmas message, at the occasion of Jens' sacerdotal ordination.

We would like to share with you some impressions about our new monastic foundation, followed by a personal reflection of Jens, who is from now on « Abuna Yohanna ». Of course, we are in contact and communion through prayer with our brothers and sisters at Mar Musa and Mar Elian in Syria, who stay faithful to our vocation and relationships established over the years, in the middle of the tragedy. They will soon send their own message.

Foundation of Deir Maryam el-Adhra in Sulaymaniah

As you know, His Excellency Louis Sako, the Chaldean bishop of Kirkuk, himself quite active in Islamic-Christian dialogue, invited us to found a community in his bishopric. For us, it is a very important sign of understanding of and interest for our vocation from the side of the Oriental churches – and precisely from this « Church of the Orient » (the Chaldean church's other name) which has never been a state church and carries a rich memory of interaction with Islam and opening towards the East, from Iran to China.

Sulaymaniah is a Muslim Kurdish city, where a Christian community lives. To simplify a little, we can say it is made of two groups: those who are originally from more or less distant Northern mountain villages and usually speak Chaldean and a fluent Arabic and Kurdish; and those who fled Baghdad, Mosul, etc., in recent years, and are more strictly Arabic-speaking. Some local families speak Kurdish at home, and the new generations will probably speak more and more this language, through social mixing, schools and the national dynamics of this region. It is our linguistic horizon, an original one, since the Catholic Church has not yet celebrated or sung the mystery of Christ in this language. We will also celebrate mass in English for the numerous foreigners who reside in the city.

Father Jens settled in Maryam el-Adhra (“Virgin Mary”) church in February 2012, and brother Sebastien joined him in October. Located in the historical quarter of Sabunkaran (« soap workers »), this church and the attached premises constitute a quiet and beautiful compound, where one feels the historical roots (the church was built in 1862, for a city that is a bit more than two centuries old). We hope to create here an open and living place, a « node of relations » as Charles de Foucauld used to describe the Assekrem, a place taking little by little its identity through a praying presence, where every person is welcomed, not so much by us as by the One who is welcoming us here.

We are now in an installation phase: we are getting acquainted with the parish and the bishopric (« eparchy » in Orient), the priests and the bishops, the liturgy, the city, the region, the municipality, the Muslim sheikhs, and on a daily basis the shopkeepers and the neighbours... Jens was ordained a priest on November 23d, in a ceremony that was truly full of joy and beauty. Sebastien, who entered the noviciate in September, studies part-time at the Faculty of Theology of Babel, now located in Erbil, the Kurdistan region's capital.

Of course, it is too early to define the identity of this monastery... May it be what the Spirit inspires to make of it for the neighbours, the inhabitants, the monks and nuns, the visitors, and the Muslims who sometimes come for a prayer in front of Mary's little grotto (we hope to complement this place of devotion, maybe with a mosaic). Our location in a town and not out in the desert should give birth to another kind of contemplation. Certainly, we have many ideas as to cultural and charity activities which could well stem up from the prayer trunk that punctuates our days. The region, beautiful and mountainous, is perfect for trekking, and we could also set up somewhere a hermitage (a shepherd's house?) or possibly a place for spiritual retreats.

The church is in a good state, but the other buildings need interior repairs in order to host nuns and visitors, and to provide decent facilities to the guards (posted by the Kurdish regional government in front of all religious places). With the help of an Iraqi engineer, we are planning to build three rooms, four toilets (including one for handicapped), an office, a dining room, a kitchen and a library-multipurpose hall. The total cost of these works, taking into account our participation and that of local volunteers, is estimated at about 45 000 dollars.

The Kurdish region (Ministry of Religious Affairs) is ought to finance a part, and we appeal to your generosity for the other part.

During Jens-Abuna Yohanna's ordination, it was very moving to see this patchwork of Christians from all over Iraq stand up and intone in one voice to the antique Chaldean chants, sharing one hope, in the harmony of the Church and social and interreligious concord. They underlined that it was the first sacerdotal ordination in Sulaymaniah... There was in the assistance a taste of future that we would like to share with you, at the occasion of the forthcoming Christmas!

Homely by Father Jens at the occasion of his ordination

Many did contribute to this moment today on my spiritual path and I am remembering them all with thankfulness.

As representatives of all of them, I would like to remember my father and my mother. Both have not been believers, moreover they had a deep aversion against the Church. However they showed me throughout their lives their absolute respect and consideration toward each man and woman. Their entire life witnessed that each person in need deserves help. And that it can be given in a way that preserves the other's dignity.

They taught me to avoid the pronoun "them" as an exclusion from the "us", but to see "them" always as an opportunity to encourage integration of the neighbour and the foreigner. Although my parents were politically very active, they did not allow any belonging to dominate their relations with the persons around them.

I would also like to thank them for their testimony of matrimonial fidelity and patience that was nourished by a deep love to each other.

The third testimony that my parents gave me through their life was their openness to the world. This was not compelling, as they both experienced, in different roles, the brutality of the Second World War. In fact, it was their conscious decision not to let themselves get blocked by their horrific experiences, but to participate actively in the construction of our world.

The importance of my parents’ testimony in my life brings into raises the question: Did I escape in front of the tremendous task of raising kids to become responsible members of the society, in becoming first monk and now priest?

However, there was a time when still a young man, I wanted to found a family. This project was at least partly destroyed by my own sins. Well, it is not enough to have great models, our part is to learn from them and apply what we have learned in our life...

Throughout the years, there has also always been the call to another aspect of life. It brought me in contact with the spiritual world and with the time, I was ready to follow the voice of God and examine Religion and Religions. I had a first clear experience of His voice when I was called to the East, then a second when the Lord revealed to me that I belonged to him.

Such a revelation makes it quite easy to choose religious life. So I lived happily for some years at the Monastery, making plans for the community without thinking much about my role in it.

Still I could not escape the question regarding this role. Here, with the help of His Excellency Bishop Louis Sako and the community of Kirkuk, and especially with the one of Sulaymaniya, I was finally able to face it.

Monks and nuns think and feel that taking vows means abandoning the perspective of fecundity. Fr. Stephan has just initiated me into a great mystery while he was leading me from the altar on which we celebrate the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ to the baptismal font. The priest brings a new life to the baptized, and is therefore somehow father.

But after all my sins, am I entitled to this new fecundity? This very question moves Isaiah, right before he offers himself as messenger and prophet (Is 6). This is also the question that anguished me today. When we reach the bottom of the crisis, the Lord acts. He himself takes up what we are not able to carry. But he does not erase our participation and collaboration in his new world, in his heavenly Kingdom.

The Lord desires to see his Kingdom full of life, in company of all the persons to whom He gave a soul. For this purpose He sent his Son, and for this purpose He lets the Holy Spirit work everywhere, so that the ones that are standing outside the visible flock of Jesus Christ may learn to do His will. So did He with my parents. And so did He make the insight and acceptance of Our Lady the Virgin Mary possible.

And here I am now, still following the call that took me away from Switzerland twenty years ago, a call becoming more and more subtle. It now shines through my own discernment, that of my community and the one of the local Church of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. But should not God's voice now be clearer? He loves acting through persons, so that they may freely choose to walk His ways.