Franciscan U President: Value of Pope Francis’ Iraq Pilgrimage Cannot Be Underestimated

Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka went on the papal journey to Iraq at the invitation of Erbil Archbishop Bashar Warda.

Franciscan University president Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka (r) visits the Mar Mattai Monastery, which dates back to the fourth century. The Monastery of St. Matthew is atop Mount Alfaf in northern Iraq.
Franciscan University president Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka (r) visits the Mar Mattai Monastery, which dates back to the fourth century. The Monastery of St. Matthew is atop Mount Alfaf in northern Iraq. (photo: Franciscan University)

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Pope Francis’ historic journey to Iraq left a powerful impression on the long-martyred Church there. Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka, the president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, who joined the papal pilgrimage, hopes to bring back the powerful witness of Iraq’s Christians there stateside.

Father Pivonka joined the Pope in Iraq at the invitation of Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil. Franciscan began a partnership with the Catholic University of Erbil in 2019 as a way to strengthen the Church’s educational mission in Iraq and to enrich the formation of Franciscan University students in the U.S., as well.

In this March 16 interview with the Register, Father Pivonka shares his personal reflections from joining Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Iraq and particularly reveals how Iraq’s Catholics show there is “so much more to being Catholic” by following Jesus as his disciple. 


Father Pivonka, now that you’re back from joining Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Iraq, would you tell us what it was like and how you ended up part of that historic papal journey? 

I’m still trying to process it. It was really a phenomenal, phenomenal experience. Now, the backstory to this is the [Chaldean Catholic] Archbishop of Erbil, Archbishop Bashar Warda, approached the university about two years ago, because he wanted to establish a Catholic University in Erbil. So we signed a letter of understanding between the two institutions that we would help them do that. That’s where we established a relationship with their Catholic university. When it was announced that the Holy Father was going to go to Iraq, the archbishop reached out to me and invited me, our vice president of academic affairs, and another professor at the university, to be his guests for the Holy Father’s visit.

I prayed about it, and I thought about it — and I thought it would be just a wonderful opportunity to be there for them and their community. And it was really, really remarkable.

This is a Christian community that has suffered at the hands of ISIS and the local government, and for decades. I was talking with an Iraqi Christian about 45 years old, and he said, “The United States focuses on the last six or seven years of ISIS, but there has never been a time since I’ve been alive [without persecution of some kind]. It’s every couple of years — a new raging faction works to destroy the Church. So to be with them and to hear their stories and their experiences was just really, really remarkable. 

I was having a conversation with Archbishop Warda, and I don’t exactly remember, honestly, how I asked him, but the essence, it was: “How many priests do you know who have been martyred?” And he just went through them, “Well, there was this person and then there was this person …” and I don’t know when he finally quit. Maybe at 10 or 11 priests or bishops who were martyred. And this is a diocese that only has 17 priests.


That’s simply incredible.

One of the stories that the archbishop shared is they become accustomed to violence. He said you’ll be with your family on the corner, having an ice cream, and there’ll be a car bombing. You’ll be startled, and then three or four minutes later, you’ll be finishing your ice cream. This was their life. So for the people, one of the questions I always asked was, “What does it mean to you that the Holy Father is coming?” One person said, “I feel like we’re finally being seen. Until now, we’ve been in the shadows, and nobody has looked at us or seen us. And now the Holy Father is coming to us.” What he said was: “The Holy Father is not merely coming to a country. He’s coming to us, to a people, to a Christian community.” And that was very, very moving. 

I was able to visit with a group of kids after the Holy Father came — maybe they were in the fifth or sixth grade — and I said, “What’s this like for you?” One of the kids said, “I’ve dreamed ever since I was a little boy to be able to see the Pope, and finally I’ve seen him.” 

You know, I’ve been to 50 papal audiences. There was nothing [at those other audiences] like this experience of the Holy Father coming to this people that has just suffered so greatly. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud to be Catholic and a community. 

Obviously some [Catholics] don’t care for the Holy Father or are very frustrated with him. But the Holy Father is a source of unity. You saw that. With these people, when the Holy Father was in their midst, it was just grace. 


What did Archbishop Warda think of the papal trip?

One of the questions I asked the archbishop — this was before the Holy Father came — was, “How will you determine this is a success?” It was the day of the morning for the Holy Father to arrive. And he said, “It’s already a success. The world is talking about Christianity in Iraq. That’s just not a conversation that has ever taken place.” 

Christians are forgotten in Iraq, and Christians are persecuted in Iraq. He said, “The entire world right now, today, is talking about Christianity, Catholicism in Iraq. That in itself is a success.” 

The Holy Father said that he felt he was supposed to come. Obviously St. John Paul II wanted to visit and wasn’t able to. So it was very clear that the Holy Father was not going to be deterred: He was going to come to Iraq. 

When the Pope was in Mosul [ISIS’ former capital in Iraq] — ISIS had threatened the life of the Holy Father and said that they were going to behead him; they were going to bring the head of the Holy Father to this church that had been destroyed in Mosul. And the Holy Father gave a talk from that space.
This one woman — it was her church that was destroyed — said, “I never imagined that I was going to be able to come back to my church. And I never imagined that the Holy Father Pope Francis would stand in the rubble.” … We cannot underestimate the impact that [the Pope’s presence] has had on this community.


Was that the most vivid moment for you or were there several?

Great question. The image of the Holy Father standing amid the rubble, with the church destroyed around him, was a really beautiful image. Another was the one of [Pope Francis] talking with the Ayatollah Sistani. … I thought that was a really powerful image. 

And it was interesting, because I talked to the people about that, and they were very frank. They said they know this [meeting between the Pope and ayatollah] is important, but it’s also very difficult because of the suffering they’ve experienced. One of the things that people said is the Holy Father can’t just come and say, “We all need to get along.” There has been too much pain, too much suffering, too much destruction, too much death. And I was just really amazed — and the local priests and bishops were amazed — at how bold the Holy Father was, speaking of Christ and the necessity of Christ in this land. 

Yes, he obviously spoke about unity, he spoke about forgiveness, but he really spoke about forgiveness in light of an address a woman gave about her son being killed by ISIS. She articulated that Christianity demands that she forgives, and the Holy Father spoke about that in Mosul. But they were thrilled at how bold the Holy Father was. He represented the Church and represented the faith just remarkably well.

When the Holy Father went to Mass [in Erbil], everything was delayed, so he didn’t get any time to rest. He was going to go back and rest for a couple of hours, and that didn’t happen. So he literally went straight from Mosul to the arena where the Mass took place. And he had told them that he was not going to go in the popemobile — that he was just too tired. He was just going to begin Mass. But as he got there, there was just this excitement. And he said, “Okay, we’ll go on the popemobile.” It was remarkable. He went around the stadium, and the excitement of the people was just contagious. Again, I’ve been to a lot of papal events. This was so profoundly moving.


What was the experience like of the Mass in the Erbil stadium?

One of the quotes that the Holy Father said is that “hope is stronger than hate.” There was a real sense of hope among the community. And one of the lines that the Holy Father had in that liturgy was “the Church is alive in Iraq, and Christ is alive in Iraq.” And there was just this cheering and applause. It was a wonderful, wonderful moment when that proclamation was made.

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.
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.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

 As you mentioned earlier, Franciscan University of Steubenville has undertaken a number of commitments with the Archdiocese of Erbil. Does this trip effect what you’ve begun in any way? 

I think so. It was 801 years ago that St. Francis went to the Middle East and said the people need a Savior. So when we as Franciscan University are collaborating with the Chaldean Catholic community there, I’m reflecting back on that: that there has been a relationship between Franciscans and the Middle East for a long time. And I look forward to what that’s going to look like. 

I mean, concretely and practically, Archbishop Warda has opened four schools since he has been archbishop, and they need teachers — so the thought of some of our alumni being able to go over there and teach; he’s got an apartment building where they will all live together that has been built. The Knights of Columbus have been profoundly generous to that community. So there’s the thought of working with them and providing teachers, and we’re going to take some online classes. But the other is that we can learn from them. 

We met with a monk who is going to teach an online class in Aramaic for our students. So our graduates need to be able to take an online course from a professor in Erbil, Iraq. And that’ll be just a wonderful opportunity. So it’s not just what we can do for them, but we have a lot that we can learn from them, as well.

What role do you envision Franciscan University can play in working with Catholics in Iraq to stabilize and rebuild the Christian presence?

We obviously think that one of the most liberating opportunities an individual has is for education: for them to be educated, to be formed. They love the spirit with which we form our students here. They really need formation and spiritual formation, mentorship — first of all in the practical skills, but also discipleship. So to be able to participate in that, it helps the formation of their students. 

We also have a campus in Gaming, Austria, where we send about 200 students a semester, and we just think that would be a great advantage: to identify some of their students and allow them to live, you know, scholarship them and allow them with scholarships to live in our community in Gaming, Austria, and have that interaction with our students; but, more importantly, for our students to be with them, hear their stories that are so transformative, to be able to hear their story and live with them. 

One of the things Pope Francis said in his first document, The Joy of the Gospel, is when we tear down walls, we see names and faces. The more that we can do that and create opportunities for interaction between our students and their students, both communities will be well-served.

What would you like the Franciscan University community — and all of us, really — to learn from our fellow Catholics and Christians in Iraq about discipleship and what it means to really follow Jesus?

That’s a great question. And I don’t want to sound harsh … I almost get emotional, actually. … I mean, these people with discipleship: They’ve given their life. It’s not just words on a page. Literally, they’ve given their life, and it cost them their life. 

We argue about [little] things, that they just laugh at us. It’s like, “Are you serious?” There’s an authenticity, there’s a prioritization, there’s a focus that — they teach us “What does it mean to literally lay down your life for the Lord?” And at what cost. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of “cheap grace” [in The Cost of Discipleship], and this [following Jesus] has cost them something. If we’re honest, for the vast majority of us, it doesn’t cost us very much, and they’ve taught us “What does it mean to pick up your cross and follow him?” And I don’t want to minimize, I don’t want to be harsh, because I know that there’s suffering and difficulty here, as well. But it’s in a very different, different manner.


How would you like to see Catholics here in the U.S. build on the momentum of what the Pope has done in Iraq with his pilgrimage? 

What comes to my mind is pray for an open heart and an open mind that there’s just so much more to being Catholic. There’s so much more to be Christian and so much more to being a disciple. Sometimes we just focus on these — and, again, I don’t want to minimize — but oftentimes really trivial things around us. There’s a much bigger perspective of “What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus, a disciple of Jesus?” We have to try to get past those little things that divide us and really reach out and be present to other people. 

This interview is edited for length and clarity.