His Excellency Sarhad Jammo, Bishop of St. Peter Chaldean Diocese in San Diego, California, has recently repeated what he heralds a “Chaldean Renaissance” taking shape, much to the surprise of what one would expect in the current state of affairs regarding Iraqi Christians. Before we look at some of the things that solidify an assertion that there is something such as a renaissance taking place amongst the Chaldean people and Church, it’s important to note why one would expect otherwise.
In the opening paragraph, the Bishop addresses a certain pessimism that still hovers in the perceptions and feelings of many fellow Chaldeans or Christians of Iraq for that matter. He as anyone else is not slow to link this expression to the socio-political-economic conflict that has inflicted Iraq during the war and insurgency in the last 9 last years, decreasing in gravity yet latent nonetheless. The Bishop has in fact for many years tirelessly addressed and dialogued on this topic of Chaldean “Identity”, a setting that has had war and Diaspora as its point of departure. He notes that our script currently is summed up as being the “conquered”. He divides the areas in which this is concerned, ecclesiastically, politically, and language wise. The Chaldean people seem to be vulnerable to whatever nearby influence exists whether it’s Arabs or Western culture. What has been engraved in the Iraqi or Chaldean mental and moral horizon is drawn from the dense history of trial and tug-of-war between varying ideologies, cultural exchanges, religious movements, imperial banners, wars, loss, and the like. More than a dozen different empires have occupied or called the land between the two rivers home, from the pre-Christian Hellenistic period, Babylonian and Assyrian empires, the Abbasid Islamic Caliphate, the half a millennium rule of the Ottoman Empire to the Ba’th political/Saddam Regime. However, many places around the world can provide a list of occupants or empires that have covered their land, so what I would contend that the Bishop wishes to address in our pessimistic symptom is the gravity of recent trajectory events, of at least this century, past and present. It’s a historical fact that much of Europe relatively solidified their nationalistic movements in the 18th and 19th centuries from “empires” to the “modern nation state” as we have it today, different political-geographic boundaries, a more democratic style of governing, and an overall increasing awareness of ethnic and national identity. Whether this took place in France during Napoleon, Greece’s independence from the Ottomans in the 1820’s or even Italy’s Risorgimento of the 1860’s. Things had pretty much settled down by the time the era of modern military technology ensued at capacities unparallel in history. This is what the “20th” century has been known for compared to the two previous we mentioned. In this latter, we see those genocides and mass killing of people which is still “embedded in the memory and vigilance” of people today, specifically Iraq. Its people have faced toppling of monarchial power, then Saddam and his campaign of strife with Iraq during their war of the 80’s, Kuwait/U.S, sanctions during the 90’s and then the recent Iraq War. It would not be surprising to identify a subtle yet mental tone among those generations of Chaldeans which is a bit strenuous at times. Regardless of setbacks, our people are known for being hard working, talented, cultured, pious, and faithful, all the qualities that are a witness to this modern age. Hence, cultivating a stable identity remains an important goal in the midst of uncertainty in a time of external influence, understandable for a shepherd seeking the welfare of his people. This stands as an important reason for why we share an interest in pursuing a similar report and if possible, a vision for the current future. As our Lord pressed Peter to feed his sheep as a testament to his love for Him, so do we assent to such an endeavor of taking care of those entrusted to us, whether priest or lay person, as a thanksgiving for the impact our Chaldean Christian heritage and faith has had on our identity, morally and spiritually. This “awakening” is exactly the kind of terminology we can fit to explain the increasing investment in once again establishing ourselves as people capable of something to offer, of something worth passing on.
In September of 2008, I attended a conference, first of its kind for our family in our limited experience; this was the ECRC “Awake my soul” conference at St. Joseph Chaldean Parish in Troy Michigan which is held annually. Let’s just say that the experience left us feeling on cloud nine; it was a truly Catholic experience. Whether it was the guest speakers from Catholic academic institutions and organizations, singers, bishops, adoration, night vigil, or books and media on sale, this one out of many events put on by this dedicated and efficient team of people has been a noted success for the people of St. Thomas Diocese in getting people to Church. The other really popular event noted for reviving the faith of many has been the Kairos Retreat, the sister one being the Emmaus Retreat, held in California. The ECRC by the Chaldean Diocese in Michigan is a testament to the vital efforts and success in reaching out to the Chaldean people and getting them involved in the faith through extensive resources and a community centered approach. Another sign of a visible renaissance in the Chaldean Church is in the growing vocations in diocesan and religious life; the number of seminarians in the United States is steadily growing, even though vocations back in Iraq took a hit because of war. These men and women are a joyful, energetic and increasingly dedicated group who wish to become involved in every area of Church and community life. On the side of the airwaves, there is the recently opened Chaldean Media Center or Kaldu TV from San Diego, providing viewers the Chaldean Mass, liturgy of the hours, community events and much more.
Yet another personal inspiration to me is the great witness of the Pontifical College of Babel. This place of higher learning for philosophy and theology continues to seek and preserve its freedom in teaching and cultivating with the mind of the universal church. Much gratitude must go to the western missionaries such as the Dominicans and Carmelites who helped the Church of the East broaden their horizons in terms of all that the Catholic Church had to offer, starting in the 14th century onwards. They were instrumental in deepening our understanding of logic, philosophy, theology and spirituality. To this day, there are Chaldean Dominicans and Carmelites, playing an active role in the Church; in fact just up to a decade ago, there was a French Dominican Seminary in Mosul Iraq.
Overall, these are just a few things that are a sign that indeed the Chaldean Church is undergoing a renaissance not because of something extrinsic to it but by God’s grace leading the people and its leaders to a renewed enthusiasm for its rich heritage. Whether it’s preserving and promoting the Chaldean language for the next generation in the Diaspora or the rights of the Chaldean minority in Iraq, the message is the same.
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Written by Mark Owdeesh