A few years ago I got a phone call from a priest friend of mine in the Irish College in Rome where I had studied for three years. He told me the sad news that a mutual priest friend of ours had been shot dead in Iraq after celebrating mass. The priest, Ragheed Ganni, was my next-door neighbour in Rome for two years. You may remember hearing about it. He had just celebrated Sunday mass, and was with three other sub-deacons and the wife of one of them. Their car was ambushed, the woman was taken out of the car and the others were shot. The three deacons had given their time to try and protect Fr. Ragheed, as they knew he was in danger. When he was forced out of the car, one of the gunmen screamed at him:
“I told you to close the church. Why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?” And he simply responded, “How can I close the house of God?”
Ragheed was just 34 and from Iraq himself. He is now a martyr of the church. He had studied to be a priest in Rome and spent several summers working in Ireland because it was too dangerous to go back to Iraq. But eventually he decided that it was time for him to go back to his home country as the people needed him. He knew that it would be extremely dangerous and to be honest I wasn’t that surprised when I heard this terrible news. About a year before, he had sent me an email telling me that armed men had come into his house and brought him out at gunpoint and then blown up the church. He sent me a photo of himself standing outside the church and it in flames. And just two weeks before he was shot, on Pentecost Sunday, there had been another bomb attack on the church.
He also told me that over half of his parish had already left, because it was too dangerous. Anyone who could afford it had gone, but the poorer people were still there. And the thing that will stick with me the most is probably this: he said that without the Eucharist, the people have nothing. That is why he was prepared to stay, because he believed that the Eucharist was everything, and the people needed this hope and so he was prepared to stay there and risk death.
Somehow it is when all our material comforts are taken away, that we suddenly realise the importance of having spiritual hope. It is not as obvious to us because we are fairly comfortable and thankfully we can practice our faith freely. But it is not so easy for many people in the world right now. However, often when people are suffering for their faith they are much more tuned in to their need for God, their need for the Eucharist.
Just before the war started in Iraq I asked Ragheed what were his fears for his country. He told me that the problem wasn’t when the Americans moved in, but rather when they would leave again, because then there would be civil war and the Christians would be wiped out. That is exactly what happened.
I am not telling you this story about Ragheed’s death to just paint a depressing picture of the terrible things going on in the world, but rather because it reminds me of the enormous treasure that God has given us in the Eucharist and the priesthood and what people will endure because of their hope in God’s promise of life after death. That gives people great inner strength to go through difficulties. We also need to hold onto that hope of the world to come. Hopefully we won’t have to experience that kind of persecution, but even for the ordinary difficulties that we continually face, it makes all the difference if we have the inner strength and hope that our faith gives us. What is that hope? It is the hope that something wonderful awaits us in the world to come if we choose for God. That helps us to be faithful, especially when things are difficult. That is what the readings are about in today’s mass.
In the first reading we hear about a family who are prepared to face torture and death rather than turn their back on their faith in God. And the Gospel Jesus is reminding us that the life after this one is real and worth struggling to reach. People are prepared to die for the mass and for their faith because it is the greatest thing that God has given us. It is what makes sense of why we are here.
As it happens I was in Rome shortly after Ragheed’s death and I was there for a special mass that was celebrated in the Irish College. It was celebrated by several Iraqi priests, mostly in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, which Ragheed also spoke at home. It was very moving to see several other priests there from Iraq who could easily face the same fate as my friend Fr. Ragheed.
During the mass, the words that kept going through my head were the words of the consecration: ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’ Those words reminded me of Ragheed’s life. He was prepared to sacrifice himself for his people so that they could have the Eucharist, the greatest treasure that God has given us. In the same way the Lord Jesus sacrificed himself for us as well, so that we might have life. May the Lord’s promises to us give us grace to be faithful and to keep going when things are difficult.
Ragheed Ganni, priest and martyr, pray for us.