Chaldean Bishop Biwai Soro had been a priest and pastor for more than a decade when he stumbled on a simpler, more basic understanding of priesthood.
“The Church is not about seeking my future, my ideas, my career, my episcopacy, my priesthood,” Soro told The Catholic Register. “Really, the Church is about connecting people to God. Priesthood is a conduit.”
As the new bishop to a Canadian Church which has grown in recent years because of the refugee Christians fleeing ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the connections Soro hopes to make are complex — spiritually, culturally and politically.
It’s a task the 63-year-old Iraqi-born priest is ready to tackle as he takes charge of the Chaldean Eparchy of Mar Addai of Toronto. Established in 2011, it is the only Chaldean diocese in Canada, serving an estimated 40,000 Chaldean Catholics.
Soro helms an oriental Church whose traditions stretch back to the Apostles. The Chaldeans have survived the Ottoman, Seljuk, Mongol and Sassanid Empires and now must root themselves within a Western, democratic and mostly secular society.
“It’s a phenomenon that we’re seeing for the first time in history,” said Soro, who was appointed to Toronto by Pope Francis in October. “So, all these answers are really the subject of the next 50 to 100 years of our lives. We will discover those answers there.”
On the run from misguided attempts by ISIS to return to the age of empires, the Chaldeans must now embrace a whole new perspective on life, Soro said.
“We grew up in a culture that says you are guilty until proven innocent, while in the West it’s totally the reverse,” he said. “Because of the Judeo-Christian background and the synthesis of these values into the Enlightenment, with the production of the current law and the culture, man has a dignity and everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”
For the refugee Church, that might sound like good news. But it’s difficult to trust and hard to adjust, “to switch the voltage if you will, from 220 to 120,” said the bishop.
St. Peter’s Chaldean Catholic Church pastor Fr. Niaz Thoma in Oakville appreciates the challenge his new boss faces bridging the gaps between generations, between new arrivals and established Chaldean-Canadians, between the families that have adjusted well and those that still struggle.
“The challenge is because we don’t have these associations and these agencies,” Thoma said. “The Church hierarchy cannot do everything, especially because we are so very occupied with the scenario of persecution and dealing with the day-to-day issues for newcomers who have just arrived in Canada.”
Not to be flip about the suffering and martyrdom of thousands of Chaldeans, Thoma counts persecution as a blessing.
“The positive dimension of persecution is to make everybody realize we’re in the same boat,” he said. “Persecution is bringing all of us together.”
Unity is not something that can be taken for granted. Just as in the Western, Roman Church, the Chaldeans are sometimes divided over liturgy. Conservatives cling to every word and gesture which has accumulated over the years, freezing it somewhere around 1830 when the Catholic patriarchate reunited in Mosul, Iraq, after two centuries of division and rivalry.
“The traditionalists would say, ‘Hey, this is what gives us character. This is how we connect ourselves to our sources, our forefathers,’ ” Soro explained. “The others would say, ‘Hey, look, the Mass and the Liturgy were created for the sake of man. It’s not that man was created to sing the liturgy.’ ”
Many of the conservatives are to be found right here in Canada in the established immigrant Church. The innovators are either in Iraq or among the new arrivals — people who have witnessed not just war but enormous cultural upheaval. They demand a liturgy and a Christianity that responds to their reality.
That’s not so easy for older immigrants who have sacrificed so much to start over in Canada, said Soro.
“They begin growing in a new environment, totally alien to them. What’s the only thing, however, that they continue to hold? It’s their liturgy. They cling to it,” he said.
Soro is not going to take sides. Bishops are there to care for the people whose passions and problems, whose families and traditions, are engaged in the liturgy. He’s there to foster and encourage a genuine, organic spirituality.
At 15, in his hometown of Kirkuk, in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, Soro decided he wanted to be a priest. At that time he belonged to the Assyrian Church of the East, a church not in communion with Rome, but comprising people who share the language and ethnic traditions of Chaldeans.
“I had a parish priest who was a good preacher and a very funny guy. I thought that by becoming a priest I would be like him,” Soro said. “I was really mistaken.”
As his family moved first to Lebanon and then to the United States in the 1970s, Soro began to equate priesthood with a defence of culture and ethnic identity. Though he no longer conceives of his ministry in those terms, he is not so quick to discard his sense of religious-ethnic pride.
“It’s a love that you have for your people. It’s a bond that you have to your family. You want to serve them in any way you can and you realize that they need a priest like you,” he said.
That’s the kind of priest he was when he first came to Toronto in 1982 as pastor of Saint Mary’s Assyrian Church of The East in Mississauga.
Elected a bishop in 1995, Soro stumbled into an opportunity to deepen his theological education at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in his middle 40s. There he began to question his understanding of Church, priesthood and communion with God.
“In my case, I had to demolish the old man and rebuild a new man,” he said.
By 2002, Soro had earned a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome. In 2013 the Synod of Chaldean Bishops received him as one of their own and he began to serve California’s growing Chaldean community from San Diego.
Today he sees Chaldean Catholicism in a global context, as “one ship in the fleet of churches that journey from a shore where there are a lot of wars, a lot of discomfort, into a place where the sun shines eternally and God is present perpetually,” Soro said. “That really is the journey of the Church toward the Kingdom of God.”
“We have started to have second and third-generation Chaldeans in Canada, where they are Chaldean but they seem to be very different from the Chaldeans who are just arriving in Canada,” said Thoma.
While Soro may seek a Chaldean spirituality that transcends ethnicity and culture, he will find people’s attachment to their roots is his ally in his ministry of unity, according to Thoma.
“Two main bases for the bishop to unify the community will be faith and heritage at the same time,” he said. “For us Eastern Christians, they go hand in hand. It’s not only the faith we’re so proud of, but the heritage. We consider ourselves descendants of the ancient civilizations on Earth.”
Certainly, Soro is aware of that pride and heritage. But he also wants Canada’s Chaldeans to be anything but frozen in time.
“We are engaged in preparing a new generation of clergy who understand the rising mentality, who understand Canada, who are native to the English expression and tongue,” he said. “The Chaldean Church in Canada needs people who are native to this culture, to this language, so they can properly serve it.”