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For Chaldean Catholics, the Faith has been transmitted by “a testimony of blood”

A Chaldean Catholic priest from Iraq living in the US discusses his Church’s ancient liturgical tradition as well as the dangers faced by Middle East Christians today.

An Iraqi man inspects the damage in 2011 at a Catholic church after attacks in Kirkuk. (CNS photo/Khalil Al Anei, EPA)

When many people hear about the Eastern Catholic Churches, one of two reactions occur. Either they are surprised and unaware that there are Catholics who are not of the Latin Rite, or they identify all Eastern Catholics as belonging to the Byzantine Rite. What many Catholics don’t realize is that there are six distinct liturgical traditions within the Catholic Church. Everyone is familiar with the Latin Rite, and a fair amount of people with the Byzantine Rite, but what about the others?

Pope St. John Paul II laid it out pretty plainly when he said that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” With that image he reminded us that the Church, comprised of liturgical traditions from both the East and West, is united as one Body. He further stated in his 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen (“Light of the East”):

Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it and to encourage the process of unity in the best way possible for each.…

[C]onversion is…required of the Latin Church, that she may respect and fully appreciate the dignity of Eastern Christians, and accept gratefully the spiritual treasures of which the Eastern Catholic Churches are the bearers, to the benefit of the entire Catholic communion…

In light of this exhortation by the saintly pontiff, it behooves all believers to learn about those liturgical traditions with which we may be unfamiliar. The East Syrian Rite, also known as the Chaldean Rite, is one of the most ancient of these rites. Father Fawaz Kako, C.Ss.R, the pastor of Mart Mariam Chaldean Catholic Parish in Illinois, opens up the treasures of the East Syrian Rite in this interview, and also details the hardships that many of our Chaldean Catholic brothers and sisters have had to undergo for generations.

CWR: Please tell us a little bit about your background. How long have you been a priest and why did you feel called to the priesthood?

Father Fawaz Kako: I was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. I’m the youngest child of 10; a very good Catholic family. And I joined the seminary when I was 14 years old in Baghdad. What influenced me was, honestly, the devotion and love of my grandmother. I saw in her a witness to the faith. As a child, my closest friend then—he still is a close friend of mine—he was like, “I’m going to go join the seminary,” so I was like, “You know what? I’m going to go join the seminary too!” So because of him I went on to the seminary. He was kind of mad because, he was like, “Whatever I do, you do it too, but that’s OK!” Three years after that he left the seminary, but I stayed. When I finished high school and everything…I went to the major seminary, and then after that, at the age of 19, I joined a religious order called the Redemptorists. A year and a half after that, I was sent to Germany to do my novitiate.

I spent about four years in Germany, and then—I don’t know if you’re familiar with Archbishop Joseph Tobin. He’s a cardinal in New Jersey right now. He was the head of the Redemptorist order, and he is the one who actually brought me to America. I [finished] my novitiate in Chicago, and that was in 2005. Then I finished my MDiv at Catholic Theological Union and I was finally professed, and then after this I joined the diocese because I’m the only Chaldean Redemptorist in North America and there was a need in the Chaldean community.

So in 2010 I was ordained and nine months after my ordination I was assigned as the guy who washes the feet of my brothers here at Mart Mariam Church. In 2010 we bought this church from the village community Church of Christ. Then we “Catholized” the church and it became a home for about 600-700 families around the area.

CWR: How many Chaldean Catholics parishes are in the state of Illinois? I know Michigan has a few, but is it just you in Illinois?

Father Kako: No. We have two parishes. St. Ephrem right in Chicago, on Bryn Mawr and California I believe, and the other is Mart Mariam, which means “Virgin Mary” in Aramaic, here in Northbrook.

CWR: Most Latin Catholics, especially here in the West, are totally unfamiliar with the Eastern Catholic Churches. If they’ve had any exposure to the Eastern Churches, it’s usually through the Byzantine Rite. What are some traditions and practices that are native to the Chaldean Catholic Church not found in the Latin or Byzantine Rites?

Father Kako: There are the basics; the basics and the dogmas and the foundations are totally the same.

We recognize the pope as the successor as St. Peter. At the same time, we recognize our own patriarch [Louis Raphaël I Sako] as the successor of St. Thomas the Apostle. It’s just like the difference between two brothers or sisters, you know, but they are the same, they have the same blood that runs through their veins. One is an older sister, which is the Church of Rome. And when I say older I don’t mean historically older, because we consider ourselves Christians from the very first century… The order of the Mass is quite different, but yet we have a consecrated Host, the Body and Blood of Christ which we receive under both species. But the organization or the order of the Mass is quite different, just as my house is different than my brother’s house, yet I’m always welcomed at my brother’s so there’s no problem. It goes back, honestly, to the way the culture has affected us, and where we come from has affected us. If you attend our Mass in Aramaic or Chaldean you will probably not understand a word. But the hint that you’ll get is that it’s very, very strongly Judaic. So the way we celebrate Mass is very influenced by Judaism.

CWR: I understand that the Divine Liturgy that’s used in your Church is very ancient. How far back to the anaphoras and prayers of your Divine Liturgy go?

Father Kako: We use the anaphora of St. Addai and St. Mari, and these were disciples of St. Thomas. We use the same anaphora of the disciples of St. Thomas the Apostle, so it’s quite ancient. It is funny when we say we speak the language of Jesus Christ—I believe that Jesus spoke our language because I think when the Jewish community was in exile in Babylon, they caught onto the language and that’s why Jesus spoke Aramaic as well as Hebrew during his times. Jesus’ ancestors were in Babylon. We do use modern Aramaic; it’s quite the same language of Jesus Christ but it probably will be a different dialect…. Very close to Hebrew as well, so when a Jewish person talks in Hebrew, our people probably will understand what that person is saying because there are so many similarities between these two Semitic languages. Also we have a Mass in Arabic, and the Arabic Mass [is there] because it is now the second language that we spoke in our land.

CWR: With the Sacraments of Initiation, several Eastern Catholic Churches administer all three sacraments at the same time to infants. What is the Chaldean Catholic Church’s practices?

Father Kako: We give two sacraments, baptism and confirmation, [to] babies. And then, [later] penance and Holy Communion. The celebrations, well, they’re differently celebrated from the Latin Rite, yet they are the same, you know? So if you are confirmed in the Chaldean Catholic Church, that definitely means you are confirmed in any Catholic Church of the world.

CWR: In recent years, we all know that ISIS has decimated Christian communities in the Middle East. However, reports keep trickling in of neighborhoods being liberated from ISIS control, thanks be to God. What is the current situation like in Iraq, Iran, and Syria for Chaldean Catholics? How large of a threat is ISIS today to Chaldean Catholics and other Christians?

Father Kako: To be honest with you, the problem is not only with ISIS. The problem is that there is a systematic persecution against Christians. Not only Christians, but anyone who is different, or if, to be honest with you, if you are not Muslim. You are always looked at as a second-class citizen.  So the problem is not only with ISIS. For example, my name, Fawaz, is not a Christian name. It is an Arabic name. According to the law in Iraq, my parents were not allowed to give me a Christian name. I was given one at baptism, but my legal name has always been Fawaz. To give someone a Christian name was illegal. Also, they just recognized something that is really bad. If one of the parents becomes Muslim, say you were a Christian before, automatically all of your children are Muslims. And that is because we don’t have high numbers in Iraq, so there is a systematic persecution… So the problem is not with ISIS; the problem is how they look at Christians and other minorities. So the situation, honestly, is really, really bad. I speak of Iraq, I speak of Syria, and Iran—it’s OK, as long as you keep your head down. So in Iraq and Syria, the Christians were badly persecuted even before ISIS. Yes, the villages are liberated, but the problem is who is running the show in these villages right now, and what kind of sacrifice would these Christians have to give in order to get their lands back. Last time I visited was to celebrate Masses at the refugee camps and where the Christians are, and honestly, their situation is really bad. Their dream is to be resettled somewhere in the Western world so at least they can restart and begin a new life for themselves, and that comes after at least seven-to-eight years of waiting. So it is really hard [for them]. Of course, ISIS did their fair share of atrocities and persecution, but that term “persecution”—it has always been there. Of course, because we are not a high number and we don’t have the resources or the money to get the attention of the world, you rarely hear about all this on TV.

CWR: I remember reading the words of the Syriac Catholic patriarch last year, saying that he felt that the Western World had abandoned Christians there. What can Catholics here in the West do to help their brothers and sisters in these affected lands? What would you recommend that we could do to help in some way?

Father Kako: First and foremost would be prayers. That’s something that we always need, so that we may get the attention of the world to pray for us. And if someone is in pain, the first thing they need is to just be heard and to have someone listen to them…. There a lot of organizations and a lot of people who are actually helping. Believe it or not, the current administration, especially Vice President Pence, has been very vocal about what’s going on with the Christians in the Middle East and especially in Iraq. That is a positive thing, what the US government is doing right now, but we still need some action; it’s easy to talk, but action is always the hardest part. And to be honest with you, we just need to get these people safe travel from their persecution to lands like the United States of America, Canada, Australia, etc., where they can practice their faith. But how I look at America, and how my community looks at America, [relates] so very much to the Hebrews in Egypt, and how God saved them from persecution and brought them to the land where they could worship him without fear. That’s how we look at America right now. It’s the “Promised Land” to a lot of my brothers and sisters…especially for these people that came from the Middle East. So what we can do is pray for them and talk about it, because the power of the word is always stronger than any other action.

CWR: If you had a chance to talk to Latin Catholics who are just completely unfamiliar with the Chaldean Catholic Church, what are one or two other things you would absolutely want them to know about you and other Chaldean Catholics?

Father Kako: Let me put it this way. Do you know what my ancestors did for me to be a Catholic person today? My faith has been given to me not by words, but by a testimony of blood. It is the most powerful testimony that anyone can give, especially our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; He gave that testimony to all of us by dying on the Cross. So the testimony He gave was a testimony of blood and that…is why we are Catholic today. I cannot believe what my ancestors did and what sacrifices they made, and how they were often on the run, just to keep Christ present always in their hearts. That’s who we are; that is our Chaldean Catholic faith. Second, [I would tell them] to be familiar with the beauty of Eastern Catholicism, in particular Chaldean Catholicism. As St. John Paul II said, the Church breathes with two lungs, the Western and the Eastern. That is something that we authentically believe in, [that we] are one, holy Catholic Church. So it’s all about coming and seeing.

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About Nicholas LaBanca 5 Articles
Nicholas LaBanca is a millennial cradle Catholic and serves as a catechist at his local parish. He currently writes for multiple Catholic outlets, including the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine Christ Is Our Hope.


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