Responding to Pope Francis’ call for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East and around the world, more than 100,000 strong gathered in St. Peter’s Square in early September to offer their petitions for a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflicts.
Pope Francis continues to stress the necessity of a ‘culture of encounter’ — that is, a world in which we view each other as brothers and sisters first and not as burdens.
In a powerful sign of unity and a heartfelt cry for world harmony, those at the Vatican stood in solidarity with their brothers and sisters of any and no faith across the globe, offering an important model for Catholics and all people of goodwill who know that violence only begets violence and war only begets war. Leading the way in word and action, as has become typical in his 6-month-old papacy, was Pope Francis.
“Humanity,” he said, “needs to see these gestures of peace.”
In modern times alone, Pope Francis is by no means the first pope to speak out against violence and conflict. Blessed John XXIII promulgated the encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”) in April 1963. Pope Paul VI’s plea “No more war, war never again” to the U.N. General Assembly in October 1965 still echoes in the hearts of Catholics of the Vietnam War era. Both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke out against the conflicts in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
|Pope Francis leads Benediction during a vigil to pray for peace in Syria in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 7. CNS photo/Paul Haring
But what has been striking about Pope Francis’ efforts has been his multi-faceted and incessant approach. In a dramatic gesture, he hosted the four-hour vigil in which Catholics, other Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and people of no faith stood united as one in prayer for peace. Less than 24 hours later, in his Angelus address, he urged that those prayers continue.
It is clear that Pope Francis has no interest in taking a backseat when it comes to weighing in as a moral voice on international issues. He appointed Italian Archbishop Pietro Parolin as Vatican Secretary of State last month, giving the central position back to a seasoned diplomat with a strong reputation for handling difficult international issues. Regarding Syria, the pope has sent a public letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the other economic leaders in the G20. Social media has also given Pope Francis a way to reach millions of people directly. He sends out daily Tweets reminding his nearly 3 million followers to continue praying for peace.
In this Year of Faith, Pope Francis has used the Syrian conflict, and the resulting possibility of U.S. military retaliation, as a teaching moment. Not only has he told us that the way to peace is through “forgiveness, dialogue and reconciliation,” he has shown us that our prayers and petitions should be never-ceasing. He has used his bully pulpit in a literal way — not only to be heard but to share the good news: that the love Jesus showed through his sacrifice on the Cross is the only peaceful solution to a world rife with conflict.
Pope Francis, too, continues to stress the necessity of a “culture of encounter” — that is, a world in which we view each other as brothers and sisters first and not as burdens. Of course that applies to the unborn, the ill and elderly, but it also applies to those caught in the crossfire of the Syrian conflict: the 2 million refugees and the more than 100,000 dead, including more than 1,400 from chemical weapons.
In his words and actions, Pope Francis continues to live out the mission of his papacy: to go out into the peripheries and preach the Gospel. And he continues to teach us that our prayers and actions are essential along with his.