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Sister Olga Yaqob, an Orthodox Iraqi nun of the Assyrian Church of the East, said her experience of living through three wars in her homeland prompted her to host a Mass for peace at Boston University on Oct. 30. Over 100 people, many of them students, attended the Mass early on the same drizzly Saturday morning as the Red Sox victory parade.
Before Mass, people gathered to pray the rosary. Each decade was recited in a different language — Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, Arabic and the African language Kikongo — to represent the universal desire for peace.
Father Dan Hennessey read a statement from Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley, expressing regret at his inability to attend the Mass. Though originally scheduled to celebrate the Mass, the archbishop was in Washington D.C. attending the funeral of Cardinal James A. Hickey.
“Peace is that gift only God can give,” the archbishop said. “True and lasting peace only comes from Christ.”
He thanked Father Paul Helfrich, BH, Sister Olga and the other campus ministers at BU for their work, which has “renewed the community with a zeal for Christ.”
“Please allow me a rain check to return to Boston University in the future,” he said.
During his homily, Father Helfrich said, “It is obvious to me that you have a clear commitment to peace” referring to the students’ decision not to get an early start on the parade.
There are two things people in the pursuit of peace are called to do — pray for it and work toward it by becoming more Christ-like, he said.
Through prayers for peace, humans better understand divine wisdom, he added.
“We lacked either the will or the wisdom to resolve our differences without resorting to violence,” he said. “We need more wisdom than humanity can muster. We need wisdom from above.”
“Becoming a peacemaker is more about becoming a child of God rather than the other way around,” he continued. “Who better to bring peace than someone who is at peace with God, at peace with themselves and at peace with one another?”
Father Helfrich encouraged students to “spend time and energy in pursuit of holiness.”
“If all we do today is pray for peace, we have only done half of what the Lord asks of us,” he said.
Sister Olga, who stands about five feet tall in her blue habit, addressed congregants after Mass.
“Last summer, I visited the Iraqi people and the American soldiers. In the year since my return, I have felt a calling my heart to do something for our two nations,” she said.
“I can tell you that the only light I had in the darkness of the three wars that I have lived through, growing up in Iraq, was the light of the Eucharist and the strength of the intercession of the Blessed Mother, Virgin Mary,” she said. “The power of the Eucharist and the intercession of the Blessed Mother can make our nations’ dream for peace a reality.”
She encouraged the crowd to be stones that create great ripples when they hit the still ocean of our world.
“The ripples of each stone will mingle with the ripples of the other stones and will change the stillness of our ocean,” she said.
Then, she invited each person to take with them a memento of the Mass, a stone with the word peace written on it.
A long applause followed her talk.
Sister Olga left her parents’ home in Iraq after the first Gulf War when her family moved to Syria. She wanted to help the poor in Baghdad, and soon with the permission of her bishop she started her own religious community, the Missionaries of the Virgin Mary, the first religious community for women in the Assyrian Church of the East in 700 years.
In 2002, her bishop sent her to study English and earn a master’s degree in pastoral care at Boston College. She also ministers to students at BU.
During the summer of 2003, Sister Olga returned to Iraq to visit her family who she had not heard from in several months.
“My last visit to Iraq, last summer, was a very painful experience, because I saw so much pain and suffering,” Sister Olga wrote in a letter to the archbishop, asking for permission to hold the Mass for peace. “I saw this in the eyes of the people of Iraq, and in the eyes of Americans, the soldiers who have been sent to Iraq. I did my best to minister to Americans and Iraqis and my heart wept with pain as I tried to help both sides have a better understanding about each other.”
“The situation in Iraq has worsened, the deaths on both sides have increased and the bombings of the churches on Aug. 1 has helped to create a division between Iraqi Christians and Muslims in a way that we never experienced before,” she added.
Many people made the Mass for peace at BU possible. Karen Farrell, a campus minister, said there was a great amount of cooperation between Sister Olga, the campus ministers, Father Helfrich, the archdiocese and students since planning began in early September.
Elisa Ferrara, sophomore who sang in the choir at the Mass said, “Any chance you have to pray or bring about more peace in the world is wonderful.”
“There’s a realist view of the world that’s practical, but there has to be an underlying belief in the idealistic view that the world will become more peaceful,” she added.
Alex Paiva, a junior, said he participated in a Mass for peace held every year in the Diocese of Fall River. Archbishop O’Malley celebrated the Mass each year he was in Fall River, said Paiva, who helped with planning the Mass as well as ushering and greeting people.
The same message resonates today, he said.
“We need to pray constantly for peace and keep a hopeful heart for the day when peace is restored,” he said.
“It was good to see all the students,” said Brother Anthony Dusza, LBSF.
“If we’re open to peace in our hearts, we can be instruments of peace in the world,” he added. “If we want to change the world, we must first change ourselves.”