In 1914, as World War I began, a newly elected pope issued a heartfelt appeal for peace.
“Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society?” Pope Benedict XV wrote in his first encyclical. “Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in heaven?” In the five decades that followed, Pope Benedict XV’s successors wrote nearly two dozen encyclicals devoted to peace. Beginning in 1968, Venerable Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continued to develop and apply Catholic teaching on peace in their annual Jan. 1 messages for the World Day of Peace.
Building on tradition
A century after Pope Benedict XV’s plea, Pope Francis has drawn renewed attention to Catholic teaching and action on behalf of peace. Echoing Pope Benedict XV’s words, Pope Francis wrote in his Jan. 1 message that “fraternity” — or brotherhood — is the “foundation and pathway of peace.”
Stephen Colecchi,director of the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told Our Sunday Visitor that “Pope Francis has built on the teaching of his predecessors” by emphasizing dialogue as “a means to resolve conflict” and human development as “a means to prevent it.”
“His emphasis on dialogue is persistent and compelling,” Colecchi said. “In his January 2014 address to the diplomatic corps, he said, ‘Everywhere, the way to resolve open questions must be that of diplomacy and dialogue. This is the royal road already indicated with utter clarity by Pope Benedict XV.’”
Pope Francis “is equally clear that human development is needed for peace,” added Colecchi.
José Henríquez, secretary general of the Catholic peace movement Pax Christi International, observes that “one major highlight of Pope Francis’s teaching on peace is rooted in his pastoral approach. He repeatedly brings a Gospel perspective to the contexts in which people and their communities live.”
“From this perspective he insists that violence and violent conflict are connected to the absence of justice and solidarity,” Henríquez told OSV. “Violence and violent conflict, he insists, are often rooted in the inequalities created by the dominant global economic system. Inequality and exclusion generate violence and are major obstacles to peace.”
Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, told OSV that Pope Francis has followed in Paul VI’s footsteps by teaching about “the relationship between evangelization and peace, particularly in the form of the establishment of human rights.”
“Like Blessed John Paul II, Francis has very wide appeal,” Father Christiansen added. “As a result, he has exceptional convoking power both for ordinary people and for leaders of the Church and world.”
This convoking power on behalf of peace was most evident when Pope Francis proclaimed Sept. 7 “the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world.” The pope’s surprise Sept. 1 announcement came just one day after President Barack Obama announced the United States would take military action in Syria after the reported use of chemical weapons.
On Sept. 7, an estimated 100,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray on behalf of peace. Three days later, Obama asked Congress to “postpone a vote to authorize the use of force.”
Pope Francis’ actions on behalf of peace have extended beyond Syria. “Pope Francis has highlighted the need for dialogue with Iran on its nuclear program, for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and for peaceful resolutions of the violence in South Sudan, the Central African Republic and numerous other places,” said Colecchi. Recently, Francis has prayed for peace amid the uprising in Ukraine.
This commitment to solidarity and peace, Pope Francis has emphasized, is something Christ’s followers need to express concretely in lives of justice and service.
“May the Lord help us all to set out more decisively on the path of justice and peace,” he said in his Jan. 1 Angelus address. “And let us begin at home! Justice and peace at home, among ourselves. It begins at home and then goes out to all humanity. But we have to begin at home.”
J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.