Brenden Thompson, the Word on Fire Institute’s UK Program Director, recently joined Nell O’Leary, the Institute’s Community Manager, to discuss his extraordinary recent experience traveling to Iraq to learn and explore ways to deepen our bonds of faith.
Nell O’Leary: Brenden, you spent the last week in Iraq on the invitation of Archbishop Bashar Warda. As a UK native, that sounds like quite the trip! Can you tell us a little about how the invitation took place, and what the purpose of your trip was as Program Director of WOF UK?
Brenden Thompson: I was introduced to Archbishop Warda whilst he was in London a few months ago for various meetings. I discovered that the Archbishop has been a keen follower of Bishop Barron and Word on Fire for many years, as are many of his young adult leaders in Iraq. So the invitation was to ‘come and see.’ Over the years, the Archbishop has received vital spiritual and financial support from many American and British Catholic individuals and charities. I wanted to see how, as Word on Fire, we might be able to support or encourage the Archbishop in his mission to keep a Christian presence in Iraq. My purpose for the trip was to discover ways of deepening the bonds between the Church in Iraq, the UK, and beyond through the Word on Fire family.
As I left Iraq and thanked Archbishop Warda for his invitation and generosity, I said: “You’ve given me a lifetime of experiences this past week.” I was not sure what to expect when the Archbishop invited me, but looking back, it was a tremendous blessing to be able to go and be with this oppressed but spiritually vibrant Catholic community in Iraq.
While you were there, you toured some fantastic sites, thousands of years old, participated in Caldean Catholic liturgies, ate delicious food, witnessed the community at the Catholic university built by the Archbishop, and more. Was there one particular location or group that you encountered where you really felt the Holy Spirit was moving in the spirit of living and sharing the faith, bringing Christ into the culture, even there in a culture of tacit religious tolerance and sometimes overt religious persecution?
Rather than one specific place or group of people, I felt most spiritually moved as I saw the closeness of a pastor and his people. Archbishop Warda is an extraordinarily busy and charismatic leader. We are talking about an archbishop who, starting in 2010, has built several schools, a hospital, and a University all whilst operating in a context of political instability, international interventions, genocide, civil unrest, caring for thousands of displaced families, and the understandable exodus of many members of his flock. Despite all of this, I was deeply moved by the very frequent scene of a leader who was known and loved by his people. Pope Francis uses the word ‘vicinanza’ (closeness) to describe the quality he believes is essential to the role of a pastor of souls. In Iraq, I saw a vicinanza between a bishop and his people. This powerful witness was a reminder to me that whatever good we do, or aim to do, we must always remain close to the people the Lord has entrusted to our care.
A culmination of your trip was a live interview with the Archbishop in the media studios he founded, a place where Catholicism is shared on the digital and physical airwaves with a radio studio and production set. (The full interview can be seen below.) We’d love to hear about how it went from your experience.
I originally had no intention of doing a ‘live’ interview on location. It was actually Dr. Matt Petrusek (Senior Director of the Word on Fire Institute) who suggested it shortly before I was due to depart. Despite the encouragement, I was not sure how practical it would be to record or livestream an interview at such short notice. When I proposed the idea to the Archbishop, he was extremely magnanimous, and I got to see first-hand how quickly the Archbishop can make things happen. He immediately made calls and set in motion the arrangements to make the interview possible. In this regard, I want to thank Radio Miriam (or Radio Maria), which is an international Catholic Radio company whose Iraq station hosted us with excellent facilities and professionalism. With all the arrangements sorted in Iraq, the other piece was making sure we had everything in place on the Word on Fire end. Thank God I work with such competent and generous colleagues at Word on Fire who saw the value of this opportunity and worked hard to turn everything around so quickly, meaning we were able to have the interview live-streamed for members of the Word on Fire Institute. The interview, which took place on the last evening of the visit, was a wonderful culmination to the trip, and I hope gives an insight into this most remarkable leader and community.
Several of the live viewers asked about how they could help, if there are ways to connect with the archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, or more immediately, to do a sponsorship or pray and link up. Did the Archbishop indicate ways to stay connected with what he and his community are doing on the ground there?
The Archbishop was clear: “Ask them to pray.” When Iraq is not present in the news, it can sometimes feel like they are out of sight and mind. So I would encourage those who feel called, or are able, to deepen the spiritual bond with our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq by praying intentionally for them. Apart from prayer, two of the big projects that the Archbishop was keen to continue to invest in were Mar Qardakh International School and the Catholic University of Erbil.
The school (Mar Qardakh) teaches the IB (International Baccalaureate) and has benefited over the years from a number of international teachers, mostly graduates of the Franciscan University of Stubenville. These remarkable young people have generously given a year (or sometimes more) to come and help add capacity and serve this vital dimension of investing and building for the future. If you are a recent graduate, why not spend a year teaching in Iraq? Seriously! There is a growing network of people whose experiences you can hear about and ask all the practical questions. But I can assure you, if you go, not only will you be looked after with the greatest care (and eat the most delicious food), you would really be contributing to an inspiring mission that is forming and shaping the future of a Christian presence in Iraq.
With regards to the University, after the Pope’s visit to Iraq in March 2021, there was a scholarship fund set up to help cover the costs for students at the Catholic University of Erbil. There is not yet a formal fund set up for individual international donors, but for those who want to find out more about how they might be able to contribute, do get in touch, and we can connect people directly until such time as there is something more formal to help.
Why does what’s happening in Iraq matter to Word on Fire listeners, viewers, and community members? How can something across the world reverberate and affect fellow Christians in the United States, Europe, Australia, or Africa?
In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul offers to a divided Church a reminder of its fundamental identity as the Mystical Body of Christ. If one part (or member) of that body suffers, St. Paul says, “All suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). Before ever setting foot in Iraq physically, I knew spiritually I was going to see brothers and sisters who would have different experiences, language, and customs but who worship the same Lord in the Eucharist. This spiritual reality and bond is true even if you never set foot in Iraq. The Church in Iraq has experienced so much suffering and persecution and is, unfortunately, not alone in this regard. 75 percent of religious persecution in the world today is against Christians. More Christians have been killed for their faith in the 20th century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. Praying and supporting the suffering Church in places like Iraq not only offers a sobering perspective on our own concerns, but more importantly, it is an act of building up the unity of the Body of Christ.
Any final thoughts on how your trip impacted you and will encourage you in the work you’re doing to further Bishop Barron’s apostolate of Word on Fire?
It continues to amaze me to think of the reach of Word on Fire, to think of the way it impacted me as a young adult growing up in East London, but also to young adults growing up in Iraq. This is the beauty of the Catholic Church; it’s truly Catholic, as in truly universal. So even as I’m seeking to build up the Word on Fire family here in the UK, that mission is inextricably linked to a global community. As Word on Fire continues to grow in its global mission, I can foresee many more opportunities to strengthen links between parts of the Body of Christ across the global Church and to strengthen one another in a shared mission to proclaim Christ in our respective cultures.