by Father Mark Goldasich
Once again, he walked the walk . . . admittedly, with a pronounced limp, due to sciatica. But what this 84-year-old accomplished this past week is close to miraculous.
Of course, I’m talking about Pope Francis and his historic visit to Iraq. Check out the details on this week’s front page and page 11. One of the reasons for this trip was to restore hope to the beleaguered Iraqi Christians. It was like a modern-day version of this story:
In September 1862, the Civil War tilted decisively in favor of the South. The morale of the Northern army dipped to its lowest point. Large numbers of Union troops were in full retreat in Virginia. Northern leaders began to fear the worst, seeing no way to reverse the situation.
Only one person had the ability to work such a miracle: General George McClellan. He’d trained the men for combat and they admired him. Although neither the War Department nor the rest of the Cabinet saw this connection, President Abraham Lincoln recognized McClellan’s leadership skills.
Ignoring the protests of his advisers, Lincoln reinstated McClellan in command. He told the general to give those soldiers something no other man on earth could give them: enthusiasm, strength and hope. McClelland accepted the command, mounted his horse and cantered down the dusty Virginia roads.
What happened next is hard to describe. The general met the retreating Union columns, waved his cap in the air and shouted words of encouragement. When the worn-out men saw their beloved teacher and leader, they took heart. They were moved with an unshakable feeling that now things could be different, things could be all right again.
Bruce Catton, the Civil War historian, described this excitement that grew when word spread that McClellan was back in command: “Down mile after mile of Virginia roads, the stumbling columns came alive. Men threw their caps and knapsacks into the air and yelled until they could yell no more . . . because they saw this dapper little rider outlined against the purple starlight.
“And this, in a way, was the turning point of the war. . . . No one could ever quite explain how it happened. But whatever it was, it gave President Lincoln and the North what was needed. And history was forever changed because of it.” (Adapted from “A Leader’s Impact” in Father Brian Cavanaugh’s “More Sower’s Seeds: Second Planting.”)
Photos and printed words can’t describe the unbridled excitement the pope’s visit stirred, especially in the hearts of Iraqi Christians. Google “Pope Francis Iraq videos Vatican” to experience a flavor of this. In them, you’ll often hear a kind of cheer called ululation, defined as “a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound resembling a howl with a trilling quality.” The pope was met with dancing and waving flags from crowds gathered along the street. Amid a background of ruined churches and buildings, he brought a sense of renewed hope.
But another reason for the pope’s visit was to come as a “pilgrim of peace” to all the people of Iraq. The respect shown to him by government officials and the Muslim population was touching. In so many of these encounters, Pope Francis is seen listening intently. He has spoken often of the importance of a “culture of encounter,” most powerfully in his encyclical “Fratelli Tutti.”
Like St. Francis, who centuries earlier visited Sultan Malik-el-Kamil in Egypt and “did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God,” so, too, did this modern-day Francis.
Again walking the walk, Francis lived his encyclical’s words: “Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.”
Let the ululation resound!