Franciscan University of Steubenville Delegation Visits Iraq During Papal Visit
Witnesses Chaldean Catholics Rebuilding Their Communities After Decades of War

STEUBENVILLE, OHIO—The Catholic faith is strong and ready to re-emerge in Iraq after decades of strife and violence, reported Father Dave Pivonka, TOR, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, following a visit with the Catholic community in that country.

At the invitation of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, CSsR, the Chaldean archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, Father Pivonka, along with Dr. Daniel Kempton, vice president for Academic Affairs at Franciscan University, and Dr. Tiffany Boury, director of the Master of Catholic Leadership Program at Franciscan, spent seven days in Iraq during Pope Francis’ apostolic visit.

A highlight of their trip was attending a public Mass with Pope Francis on March 7 at the Franso Hariri Stadium. Father Pivonka said while he has seen the last three popes on numerous occasions, there was something profoundly different about Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to a country that has suffered from nearly continuous civil war since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“Pope Francis proclaimed Christ as the way to reconciliation, the way to peace. His message was hope will defeat hate,” Father Pivonka said.

Father Pivonka commended the Holy Father for going to Mosul, until recently an ISIS stronghold, where all the churches were destroyed and an ISIS leader once vowed to kill the Holy Father. “Imagine what it was like for those people to see the Holy Father himself preach to them from where his life was threatened,” he said.

During their visit, the group visited local Catholic schools, including the Catholic University of Erbil, a seminary, museum, and a monastery that dates back to the 4th century, and met with Christian refugees.

Noting that over 60 percent of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country since the ISIS insurgency, Father Pivonka said, “There’s not a family I met who didn’t lose loved ones, have their church destroyed. I’ve never been so proud to be a Catholic and to witness the Holy Father so bravely visit his people in need.”

Kempton said the new Catholic University in Erbil, established in 2015, “will provide a safe haven for Iraq’s Christian community to receive an education consistent with their values, traditions, and beliefs. It will also provide an academically excellent education for non-Christians, who will hopefully develop from their experience an appreciation of the richness and quality of Catholic education.”

In 2019, Archbishop Warda and Father Pivonka signed a Memorandum of Understanding for the mutual benefit of the Catholic University of Erbil (CUE) and Franciscan University that includes cultural exchanges and the development of programs between the two universities.

Boury, the third member of the Franciscan delegation, is organizing high school exchange programs between the U.S. and Iraq and will see three Erbil students graduate in May 2021 from Franciscan University’s Master of Catholic Leadership program.

“All of those we encountered have stories of how the war has affected their families and communities. They do not dismiss their loss, but they do not dwell on it. They are rebuilding, have never strayed from the Christian faith, and continue to celebrate what it means to be part of a universal Church,” she said.

Franciscan University continues to explore educational and cultural exchanges with the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil. On May 14-15, 2021, Archbishop Warda will preside at Franciscan University’s Baccalaureate Mass and receive an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters.

Dr. Daniel Kempton, vice president for Academic Affairs at Franciscan University, Dr. Tiffany Boury, director of Franciscan’s Master of Catholic Leadership Program,
and Fr. Dave Pivonka, TOR, president of Franciscan University, visit the Citadel in the historic city center of Erbil, Iraq.

Franciscan University president Fr. Dave Pivonka, TOR, at the Mar Mattai Monastery, which dates back to the 4th century.

Franciscan University president Fr. Dave Pivonka, TOR, at the Mar Mattai Monastery, which dates back to the 4th century.

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