Pope Francis will arrive in Iraq tomorrow to comfort and strengthen the beleaguered Christian community and to advance the “Human Fraternity” project that he launched two years ago in the United Arab Emirates.
There is also a biblical purpose, to honor the role of Abraham, “our father in faith,” in the history of salvation. That is unfinished business from the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The visit of Pope Francis fulfills the desire of St. John Paul II to visit 21 years ago. Saddam Hussein made the visit impossible.
“The people of Iraq are waiting for us,” said Pope Francis at his Wednesday audience. “They were waiting for Pope St. John Paul II, who was not allowed to go. The people cannot be let down for a second time. Let us pray that this trip can be carried out well.”
John Paul had planned a great biblical pilgrimage for the Jubilee — Egypt for the Exodus, Israel and the Palestinian Authority for the Gospels. In 2001 he would conclude the pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul, visiting Syria, Greece and Malta. But he wanted to begin in Iraq.
“The first stage of the journey which I hope to make is linked to Abraham,” he wrote in a June 1999 letter on pilgrimage to the holy places. “In fact, if it be God’s will, I would like to go to Ur of the Chaldees, the present-day Tell el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq, the city where, according to the biblical account, Abraham heard the word of the Lord which took him away from his own land, from his people, from himself in a sense, to make him the instrument of a plan of salvation which embraced the future people of the Covenant and indeed all the peoples of the world.”
The biblical dimension of the Holy Father’s visit will lift up the figure of Abraham, emphasizing his call away from Ur toward the Promised Land, rather than the more famous episodes of his life, such as the sacrifice of Isaac at Moriah.
The call of Abraham — “Abram” is his name at the time — is both fascinating and enigmatic. Abram’s call begins the entire history of salvation; it bears closed examination. Herewith a “W5” primer.
Abram is a 75-year-old man of some means when he is called. His name — always significant in the Bible — means “lofty father,” which is a bit strange, given that he is childless, despite his long marriage to Sarai. God will eventually change his name to Abraham, “father of multitudes.”
Abram’s childlessness is remarkable. At the time, polygamy was not uncommon, nor was the generation of children with concubines or slaves, as Abraham himself would eventually do. Is there an unusual fidelity about Abram? Is that why he was called? We are not told. Nor is it explained why Abram goes where the Lord calls him.
“The text is absolutely (and happily) silent regarding Abram’s motives for answering God’s call,” writes Leon Kass in his masterful commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Wisdom. Is Abram a pious man awaiting the Lord’s call? Or does Abram have some qualities that make him suitable? We don’t know, but can speculate.
“To establish a great and godly nation in the midst of a hostile world, God will need to tap a bold and ambitious man,” Kass writes. “Also because God can neither extirpate pride from the human soul or eliminate man’s desire for greatness and fame — recall the Babel builders’ unanimous wish to “make us a name” — it makes excellent sense that He should enlist man’s ambition and pride in His project to subdue them.”
Read more at National Catholic Register