Basra Chaldean prelate celebrates Mass with U.S. troops

pilot_114001.jpgBy Sgt. Neil W. McCabe
Msgr. Imad Al Banna, the vicar of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic patriarch in Basra, rings the Liberty Bell presented to him Nov. 7 at Camp Adder, Iraq by the commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard’s Combat Aviation Brigade. Earlier, the prelate celebrated a Mass dedicated to serving and fallen American soldiers. Pilot photo/ Sgt. Neil W. McCabeContingency Operating Base Adder, Iraq — A short walk from the Ziggurat of Ur, the massive Sumerian stone edifice that dominates the site of Abraham’s hometown, the leader of southern Iraq’s Chaldean Rite Catholic community celebrated Mass Nov. 7 at the camp’s chapel.

“Today, as we gather in the Land of Abraham, the father of all nations, I dedicate this Mass to all of you — and I also dedicate the Mass for the peace, which is the wish of children and every people on earth, especially the peace in our beloved country, Iraq,” said Msgr. Imad Al Banna, who, as the vicar of the country’s Chaldean patriarch, is the prelate of Basra, a diocese erected in the fifth century.

“I further dedicate this Mass to those working for peace, especially for those who offered the ultimate sacrifice, who died in Iraq for the sake of peace at the Altar of Freedom,” the prelate said.

The official host of the liturgy was the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, a unit of the Pennsylvania National Guard, said Army Col. Teresa A. Gallagher, the brigade’s commander.

The invitation was worked out between the colonel and Army Lt. Col. John C. Morris, chief of chaplains for the 34th Infantry Division Command Group, whose area of operations is Iraq’s southern nine provinces, she said. Chaplain Morris and his staff coordinated the event.

The ordinary flew 45 minutes north to Camp Adder with Morris and the commander of the 34th, Army Maj. Gen. Richard C. Nash, from the general’s Multi-National Division South headquarters at Camp Basra. In his homily, the prelate said he has a great working relationship with Nash, whom he called a great friend of the Iraqi people.

Nash, whose 34th Division is part of the Minnesota National Guard, said the ordinary’s visit to Camp Adder was a fantastic opportunity for the prelate to spread the Word of God to soldiers in other parts of Multi-National Division South.

After the Mass, the Chaldean cleric sat with soldiers and other congregants in a reserved room at the nearby dining facility, posing for pictures and answering questions from curious Americans and sharing moments of affinity with Iraqis from his community. At the end of the luncheon, Gallagher presented him with her personal coin and a commemorative Liberty Bell, which he gamely held up and rang playfully for everyone.

“This is the second time I have met him in person,” said Army Maj. Gary K. DeRouchey, a Catholic chaplain assigned to MND South from South Dakota, about the prelate. Father DeRouchey concelebrated the Mass with the ordinary along with three other Catholic chaplains, Air Force Maj. Richard M. Fitzgerald, Air Force Captain Richard J. Allen and Army Capt. Frantisek Halka.

“Each time, he has shown himself to be a man of great compassion and love for the people of his parishes as well as the American people,” Father DeRouchey said. “He sees the importance of cooperation between our nations, but not so much on the political side, but mostly on being instruments of God’s mercy. You can see the love of Christ in him.”

Father DeRouchey added, “He truly lives out his faith. He has nothing but a smile on his face. He is forever praising God for the blessings he has received. He lives with much less than most of us ever dreamed of living and he celebrates that.”

Among the Iraqis at the Mass, was Deacon Bassam Toma Kajo, a native of Basra, who assisted the monsignor at the Mass both as an altar server and as second voice, joining in chants and making responses.

Kajo, who travelled with the prelate, said he was ordained a permanent deacon in 2005, one year after he lost sight in his right eye when an Islamic militia in his city destroyed his store with rocket propelled grenades.

Today, Kajo is the director of a private agency, Brothers Loving Human Charity, which focuses on helping children of all backgrounds with extreme medical conditions, he said. Because of a freak house fire, he lives with his wife and daughter in a one-room apartment.

On the tarmac at Camp Basra before boarding his helicopter, the prelate told Father DeRouchey, that his community has suffered terribly during the struggle to establish a new Iraq. “There are 14 churches, six are open and eight are closed. There were 1,050 families, now there are 500.”
Despite the challenges, the ordinary said he continues to send seminarians to the Chaldean seminary in Baghdad and he operates a school open to all children and other charitable services with the help of religious sisters.

There is a hope that this Mass is just another step towards a fuller interaction between the local and military Christian communities, said Father DeRouchey.

Events such as this Mass are a chance to reach outside the military boundaries, he said. In fact, the chaplain broached the idea with the ordinary of partnering with the local Chaldean community in acts of charity as a Church, to reach the hearts of the people of Iraq.

He also discussed with the ordinary the possibility of inviting members of his community to come onto Camp Basra to celebrate Mass during the Christmas season.

“It was an East meets West opportunity,” said Father Fitzgerald. “I teach a class here where Western Christians are trying to learn about Eastern Christianity, so my whole class was actually at the Mass–Catholic and Protestant, by the way, and they are trying to integrate this whole experience as to how we can build bridges between East and West and a lot of it comes through knowledge.”

The Chaldean Mass is celebrated in Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language spoken in Palestine in the time of Jesus. The celebrant chants the liturgy in a rhythm unfamiliar to soldiers who are accustomed to how the Roman Rite is celebrated in the United States.

“I think it is a very historical event in many ways because the language that was used — the language of Jesus, which ties us more directly to Jesus,” Gallagher said.

Sgt. Miguel Pastrana, a soldier deployed with the Army Reserve’s Chicago-based 16th Psychological Operations Battalion, stationed at Camp Adder, said the Mass was a very powerful spiritual experience. Pastrana attended the Mass with two other soldiers from the 16th POB; Spec. Martin P. Nolan and Cpl. Richard M. Kostro.

All three soldiers said they followed the cues from Father Fitzgerald from the stage, where he led the choir.

Participation is the key, Father Fitzgerald said. “The Mass has an international predictability, and although the Mass was celebrated in Aramaic, there were moments when we could vaguely indentify the moment and jump in with song.”

Sgt. Neil W. McCabe is a Pilot reporter currently serving with the 311st Military History Detachment in Iraq.