Alexandria priest was in Iraq for papal visit

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Matt Riedl| Catholic Herald Multimedia Producer
Fr. David Dufresne visits a historic site in Iraq as part of his trip to the country earlier this month. Fr. Dufresne was able to attend a papal Mass in Irbil, Iraq, March 7. BASILICA OF SAINT MARY | COURTESY 

It was by chance phone call that Father David Dufresne first met the archbishop of Irbil, Iraq, last January.

Little did he know then how that encounter would lead to an invitation to see the pope barely more than a year later.

Father Dufresne, a parochial vicar at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Alexandria, traveled to Iraq earlier this month to attend Pope Francis’ papal visit as a guest of the Iraqi archbishop.

“That’s how God works — it’s a dot through a dot through a dot, and next thing you know you’re going to Iraq,” Father Dufresne said.

Last January, Father Dufresne was invited to breakfast with a parishioner of the basilica. The breakfast was hosted by the parishioner’s friends from Iraq — and one of those Iraqi friends had a relative who is a priest secretary to Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Irbil, Iraq.

As the breakfast guests talked, the friend wanted to dial his Iraqi priest relative on the phone, Father Dufresne said, and after a few minutes, the phone was passed to his boss, Archbishop Warda.

“I don’t know if this is typical of the culture, but after a second of introduction (Warda) said, ‘Father David, I’m coming to Washington, D.C., in a couple weeks. Can I stay there?’ ” Father Dufresne said.

After first checking with his pastor, Father Dufresne and the basilica offered to host the archbishop while he was in Washington, he said. While in town, Archbishop Warda talked with at least one Congressional representative about Christian persecution in Iraq.

During the archbishop’s stay in Alexandria, he and Bishop Michael F. Burbidge concelebrated Mass at the basilica.

Father Dufresne and Archbishop Warda kept in contact with each other throughout the year, and the archbishop sent a pre-recorded video message to the basilica as part of its Saints Peter and Paul Conference in September. 

In December, Pope Francis announced he would make an apostolic journey to Iraq March 5-8 — the first time a pope had ever visited the majority-Muslim country.

A couple months later, Father Dufresne said he was surprised to receive an email from Archbishop Warda, inviting him and about 20 others to Iraq as his guests for the visit.

After getting the approval from his pastor, Father Edward Hathaway, Father Dufresne said he “just kind of, on a whim, bought a ticket and went there.”

“(Archbishop Warda) was an extraordinarily gracious host,” Father Dufresne said. “It was kind of embarrassing because he was also hosting the pope, and for him to receive me so warmly and generously and spend so much time with me … was a really extraordinary experience, that hospitality.”

By Father Dufresne’s count, there were “about eight other Americans who ended up making the trip” as guests of Archbishop Warda, including  a delegation from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio and a delegation from the Society of G.K. Chesterton. 

While he was in Iraq, Father Dufresne visited two monasteries, a cultural museum focusing on Iraq’s Christian heritage, and St. George’s Church, the oldest Chaldean Catholic church in the majority-Catholic Irbil suburb of Ankawa.

He concluded his three-day stay by attending Sunday Mass with Pope Francis at a soccer stadium in Irbil.

Father Dufresne said he was three rows from where Pope Francis was celebrating the Mass.

“Another embarrassing element was … my (seating) section was with all the other Chaldean bishops. It was me and one other American priest,” Father Dufresne said. “It was embarrassing because all the other Iraqi priests were a whole section behind us. I was like, I don’t know why I’m here next to all the bishops.”

Father Dufresne said he’s attended at least 30 papal Masses, mostly when he was a seminarian studying in Rome for four years.

But this Mass in Iraq, he said, was “one of the more personally moving” Masses he’s attended.

“It was a very beautiful liturgy,” he said. “The music was just … extraordinarily well-sung, transcendent, nothing like anything I’ve experienced. I’ve heard Eastern chants before, but to be there and be immersed in this culture was really just a beautiful experience.”

Father Dufresne said the pope’s strength throughout the Iraq trip impressed him.

“(Before Mass) there were whispers amongst the clergy saying (Pope Francis) was thinking of not even coming to the stadium … because he was so tired,” Father Dufresne said. “You could see in his face how much pain he was in, probably because of the sciatica. He could barely walk.”

But beyond the physical, he said the strength of Pope Francis’ words left an impression not only with him but with the local people.

“I think people were very relieved at how strong (his words) were and how courageous they were,” Father Dufresne said. “He had messages of hope and encouragement but then, also, he boldly proclaimed the Gospel and he boldly challenged the government to not be corrupt, to allow religious freedom. He boldly challenged the Muslim community to respect these religious minorities. I think people were very pleased with his message.”

He said the locals he talked with during the trip all said the pope’s trip made them feel seen.

In the past two decades, Iraqi Christians have endured violent persecution in their home country and many have been killed by militant groups.

It is estimated there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq, down from pre-2002 estimates of between 800,000 and 1.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of State.

Father Dufresne said, before the pope’s visit, the locals he talked to expressed some concern that Pope Francis was coming to Iraq “primarily as an olive branch to the Muslim community.”

“And interfaith dialogue is important, but I think there was a fear that the persecuted church would kind of be forgotten or not highlighted,” Father Dufresne said. “That fear was obviously allayed. They were very encouraged by the Holy Father recognizing their suffering, their perseverance and their joy.”

Before the papal Mass in Irbil, Father Dufresne saw a statue of Mary that had been desecrated by the Islamic State group — its head and hands had been chopped off but were now in the process of being reattached.

“For me that statue was that visible expression of (the Iraqi Christians),” he said. “It was just such a visible sign of that perseverance and that hope. It really brought it home to me that I can put up with my tiny little crosses in comparison, and to recognize, very tangibly, Jesus is triumphant.”