Referencing being nominated a cardinal, sometimes called “princes of the Church,” Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Babylon said he thinks of himself only as a father, pastor, and servant.
“I say to the [Iraqi] people: I am a father, a pastor — not a prince,” the head of the Chaldean Catholic Church said to journalists June 27, one day ahead of the ordinary consistory which will create 14 new cardinals, including the patriarch.
“As the Father asks us: we are servants, we should serve… with the joy of the people,” he said, noting in an earlier interview with EWTN News Nightly that patriarchs, like cardinals, also wear a red cassock, which symbolizes a willingness to die for the faith.
It can also symbolize the martyrs of the Chaldean Church, he continued. “Even now we [still have] martyrs. And I do hope that the blood of the martyrs will be fertile, will bring us a future, will bring us a new situation [in Iraq].”
He said patriarchs of the Eastern Churches feel strongly that they are called to serve their people, to be close to them, and to help them in their need, not to seek “prestige or privileges.”
“This is the call of my nomination as a cardinal. It is not a prize or a personal reward. [It is] to be sent anew for my mission, a new vocation.”
Sako was born July 4, 1948 in Zakho, Iraq. He was ordained a priest of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Mosul in 1974.
In 2002 he was selected as Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, and was confirmed and consecrated bishop in 2003.
While Archbishop of Kirkuk, he served, from 2010, as the last apostolic administrator of the Chaldrean Eparchy of Sulaimaniya, until the see was suppressed in 2013.
He was selected and confirmed as Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon and Archbishop of Baghdad in 2013.
In 2008 and 2010 he was awarded the Defensor Fidei and international Pax Christi awards.
He has been vocal about the importance of disestablishing Islam in Iraq, to create an equal ground for all Iraqi citizens, especially Christians and other minorities, and has preached the need for mutual respect and cooperation between Muslims and Christians in the country.
The patriarch has also expressed concern at the exodus of Christians from Iraq since 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
Speaking to journalists Wednesday, Patriarch Sako said he believes Pope Francis’ decision to make him a cardinal is a comment “on the universality of the Church — not dividing the [Eastern] Churches from other Churches.”
It shows the pope’s spiritual fatherhood and special care for the Middle East, he said. Being made cardinal shows Francis’ support for the Iraqi people “much more than money [would].”
Patriarch Sako will be the first Chaldean patriarch who may be able to vote in a papal conclave. His predecessor, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, was not elevated to cardinal until shortly after his 80th birthday.
He said that following his nomination, which was a “surprise” to him, there was “a feast, a big celebration, among Iraqis. Because for them this is really a sign of hope… a big support internationally.”
Sako also noted that he received calls and visits of congratulation upon the publication of the news, not only from Christians, but from many Muslims and many of the country’s leaders, including President Fuad Masum and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Though many believe the future of Christians in Iraq is bleak, the patriarch was confident things will improve, saying he is “convinced that the future will be much better than now” and that someday there will be complete freedom of conscience.
“Christians should also have patience and hope. We don't have to think that we are persecuted... We have to be patient,” he said. “I am sure our Church will grow, that Christianity will grow.”
Material from EWTN News Nightly was used in this report.