Today Catholic Christians celebrate the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
On this day, we hear some sobering and profound words about the nature of human life from the Gospel of St. John. Specifically, we hear Jesus say:
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me” (John 12: 20-33).
When we hear this passage, we not only think of Jesus and his crucifixion, we also think of the martyrs of the Faith, people who willingly gave their lives for God and his Church.
Before looking at a few things we can glean from today’s Gospel passage, let’s look at a Twenty-First Century martyr, Father Ragheed Ganni.
Ragheed Ganni was born on January 20, 1972 in Mosul, Iraq, and he grew up in the Chaldean Catholic Church – one of the almost 30 branches of the Catholic Church.
When he grew up, he studied at Mosul University where he received a degree in civil engineering in 1996. After serving in the military under Saddam Hussein, he entered a seminary in Iraq to study to become a priest, and later, his bishop sent him to study in Rome to study at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas Angelicum. In October of 2001, Ragheed was ordained a priest, and two years later, he received a licentiate in ecumenical theology from the Angelicum. Fr. Ragheed was fluent in Aramaic, Arabic, Italian, French, and English.
While living in Rome, Ragheed lived at the Pontifical Irish College where he played soccer for the College. Today, there is an annual tournament played every May between the Scottish, English, Beda, and Irish Colleges in Rome, and the award has been named the “Ragheed Cup” in his honor.
Because of his excellent education and fluency in many languages, Fr. Ragheed was a correspondent for the international agency “Asia News” of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Fr. Ragheed returned to Iraq where Christians were routinely persecuted. Despite routine harassment, Fr. Ragheed refused to leave his flock in Mosul where he served as pastor of Holy Spirit Church. On April 1, 2007, Palm Sunday that year, bullets smashed the stained glass windows of the church during Mass.
Enemies of Christianity ordered Fr. Ragheed to close his church, but he refused. He also knew that worse attacks would come, for he wrote, “Each day we wait for the decisive attack, but we will not stop celebrating Mass. I am encouraged in this decision by the strength of my parishioners. This is war, real war, but we hope to carry our cross to the very end with the help of Divine Grace.”
Bombings continue in Mosul and Bagdad during May and June. In his last email, Fr. Ragheed wrote, “We are on the verge of collapse.”
Following Mass on Trinity Sunday, which was June 3, 2007, Fr. Ragheed finished celebrating evening Mass. Three subdeacons of the church decided to accompany Fr. Ragheed to protect him, for they knew he was a marked man. As they got into their car, a group of armed men stopped them and demanded why Fr. Ragheed did not close the church as ordered. He replied, “How can I close the house of God?” When Fr. Ragheed and the subdeacons refused to convert to Islam, the armed men shot and killed Fr. Ragheed and the three subdeacons. Then, the armed men then put explosives in the car and blew it up with the bodies inside.
On June 4, 2007, thousands of people attended the funeral of the four martyrs. Fr. Ragheed Ganni is sometimes called the “martyr of Mosul” today.
From the Scripture passage of today, and the life of Fr. Ragheed Ganni, we can glean many things. Here are just three.
First, when Jesus talked about “hating” one’s life in this world, we should not take this in a literal sense. That would contradict Jesus’ triple love command, which was to love God, neighbor, and self. Rather, it means we are to keep God and the next life as our primary focus, not life in this world.
Second, martyrdom continues today. In fact, historians believe that the 20th century had more martyrs than any century in recorded history. In Russia alone, Catholic historians believe that over 13,000 Catholic Christians were martyred.
And third, martyrdom is one of the highest honors God can bestow on a person. And the blood of martyrs serves as the seed upon which the Church grows and flourishes.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be a good idea to reflect on the martyrs of the Church and give thanks for their courageous sacrifice.
And that is the good news I have for you on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, 2018.
- Wikipedia Contributors. “Ragheed Ganni.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 18 September 2017.
- Patrick Buchanan. “The Martyr of Mosul.” Creators Syndicate, June 21, 2007.