Melbourne News

Peace: Nonviolence is the theme of Pope Francis’ recent plea

Friday 6 January 2017

Denis Fitzgerald, Catholic Social Services Victoria

In his message for the World Day of Peace on 1 January 2017, Pope Francis draws on the major documents of his pontificate to focus on non-violence. He also builds on the fundamental call of the Gospel, and a tradition that his predecessors have enriched over recent decades.

Pope Paul VI assumed his role in 1963, just months after the ailing Pope John XXIII issued his great encyclical Peace on Earth (Pacem in Terris, as it is widely known.) Pacem in Terris spoke to a world caught in a cold war that had led to the Cuban missile crisis of November 1962; and it spoke to a Church engaged in the Second Vatican Council. Peace was a priority message that the Church took to the world.

In October 1965, while the Bishops of the Vatican Council were finalising their ground-breaking document on the Church in the Modern World, Pope Paul flew to New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. The culmination of his address was a call for peace:

‘never again one against the other, never, never again!....never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!’

Peace, the Pontiff noted, is not just a political arrangement, with a balance of power and of interests, but is built on ideas, and on the works of peace: disarmament, cooperation between States, the progress of human society, deep respect for the basic rights and duties of mankind. Above all, the edifice of peace must rest on personal conversion – a new way of thinking about humankind and human society, and about ‘the pathways of history and the destinies of the world.’

Building a peaceful world is a priority for all time, and two years later Pope Paul instituted an annual Day of Peace, on 1 January; and issued a Message for the observance of this day.

In his inaugural message, for 1 January 1968, Pope Paul saw this day as a commemoration of a hope, and of a promise, that peace may come to ‘dominate the development of events to come.’

Working for peace is an integral part of the Christian message, and Pope Paul spells this out: the Good News is ‘the Gospel of peace’ (Eph 4:15), and ‘Through His Sacrifice on the Cross, [Jesus] brought about universal reconciliation, and we, as His followers, are called to be peacemakers’ (Mt 5. 9)’. New Year’s Day was already set aside in the liturgical calendar as a solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and this was not to change. Pope Paul, however, connected the two: he called for the liturgical celebrations to ‘shed their light of goodness, wisdom and hope upon the …gift of Peace.’

And, as in his address to the UN, the Pope also spoke to the entire world. World Peace Day was launched for the world as a whole, as a service to the world, with the intention that it ‘give to the history of the world a more happy, ordered and civilized development.’

Peace, he wrote, must be built on law, justice and equity; it must come from a spirit of coexistence between peoples; and a new outlook on our destiny. International organisations have an important part to play in this. False rhetoric is not enough: sincerity, justice and love must guide relations between states, and between citizens.

Believers in the Gospel have much to contribute to the building of peace. The call to unity of all humanity, fraternally united in God, is a powerful idea; the Gospel call to have mercy can help rebuild society; and prayer invokes ‘divine forces of spiritual and political renewal’ but also offers each of us an opportunity to examine the roots of rancour and violence that might lie within us.

Fifty years on, the world has changed. The cold war has ended; and the conflicts that made headlines in the 1960’s are, for many, a matter of history.

But new challenges to peace have emerged, with wars and conflict in a number of countries in the Middle East and Africa, the number of displaced people in the world displaced by conflict at an all-time high of 65 million, terrorism operating on a global scale, and increased unease at disparities in wealth and power within and between countries.

Over this half century, successive Popes have issued a statement for 1 January each year, and the Church across the world has amplified this in relation to their own circumstances – various aspects of peace have been a focus of several of the annual Social Justice Statements from the Australian Bishops, and responding to domestic violence was the theme of a statement in 2016 by the Bishops of Victoria.

For Pope Francis, peace has been a constant theme, as it was for his namesake, St Francis of Assisi. His message for 1 January 2017, his fourth such message, draws on the major documents of his pontificate as it focuses on non-violence, which he summarises as follows:

… I would like to reflect on nonviolence as a style of politics for peace. I ask God to help all of us to cultivate nonviolence in our most personal thoughts and values.

May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life. When victims of violence are able to resist the temptation to retaliate, they become the most credible promotors of nonviolent peacemaking.

In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.

Jesus offered a radical positive alternative to violence, with his call to love our enemies (Mt 5:44). He ‘walked the path of non-violence’, to the very end, and called on his followers to be an instrument of reconciliation. Loving our enemies, the Pope explains, is not a matter of succumbing to evil, but of responding to evil with good (Rom 12: 17-21) and breaking the chain of injustice.

Non-violence is not passive – Mother Theresa was a tireless worker of non-violent responses – and it gets results: the Pope cites Martin Luther King Jr in the USA, Leyman Gbowee and Liberian women, and, on the sub-continent, Mahatma Ghandi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

These reflections relate to a number of issues that are front of mind for many in Australia.

The Pope recognises that many religious traditions have compassion and non-violence as ‘essential elements pointing to the way of life’, and quotes his own earlier words at an inter-religious gathering at Assisi:

Let us never tire of repeating: “The name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone is holy. Peace alone is holy, not war!”

And non-violence within families is so important: ‘dialogue, respect, concern for the good of the other, mercy and forgiveness’ are needed for the resolution of frictions and conflicts that emerge; but they are also needed for the family to be an effective crucible from which ‘the joy of love spills out.’ Thus, as he pleads for ‘disarmament and the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons, Pope Francis pleads ‘with equal urgency for an end to domestic violence and to the abuse of women and children… The politics of non-violence have to begin in the home and then spread to the entire human family.’

Peacebuilding through nonviolence requires work by international institutions and nations, but it also requires leaders in all fields to apply the Beatitudes to their work. They – that is, we – need to ‘show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment or seek to win at any cost’; we need to face conflict head on, to choose solidarity, face differences constructively and non-violently.

The Pope pledges the assistance of the Church ‘in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence’, even as we work to banish violence from our hearts, words and deeds.

It’s up to us, with God’s help.

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