Pope Francis' call for a day of fasting and prayer for peace last week garnered much attention around the world. It also piqued my interest in what other popes have said regarding the issue of peace. I managed to browse through all the annual messages issued by our popes for the celebration of the World Day of Peace, which takes place on the first day of January of every year. There are forty-five of these messages in total, starting from the first, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968 up to the latest one by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2013. Three popes had participated in writing these messages, with the other being Pope John Paul II.
All three have cited two authoritative Church documents on this topic: first, the encyclical Pacem in Terris by Pope John XXIII in 1963, and second, the fifth chapter of Pastoral Constitution of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Gaudium et Spes. Both documents deserve attention themselves and will not be discussed here. The focus here is on the annual messages and their recurring themes.
What Peace is Not
Many often consider peace as the absence of wars, but this idea is firmly rejected in these documents. Just because two parties are not physically at each others' throats does not eliminate the conflicts that germinate wars. This is also why we cannot consider peace as merely a political arrangement. Furthermore, peace is not a matter of deliberately sitting on our hands and not doing anything about a dire situation. If I see someone being bullied in school, my inaction is not a sign of peace.
Peace Begins with the Person
If peace is more than a matter of signing truces and defeating enemies, then what is it? It begins on the personal level. More importantly, peace is not of our own personal creation. It is a gift from God. Jesus himself said to his disciples after his resurrection: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (Jn 14: 27). The apostle Paul also writes that Christ “… is our peace” (Eph 2:14). From this gift of peace flows our innate desire for peace. What does such a peace “look like”? I would like to highlight a few major themes here:
- Conversion. This is especially the case for those who seek to resolve conflicts in violent and destructive ways. We need to turn back to the way of peace. In order to do so, we need to acknowledge that our old ways are wrong. We need reconciliation and forgiveness. This can be a painful process, but it is necessary. If not, everyone remains frozen in the vicious cycle and peace cannot be realized.
- Human Dignity. Conflicts and violence are direct violations of the human dignity inherent in every one of us. We are not simply objects or numbers to be counted as collateral damage. This dignity needs to be acknowledged and respected, of which Pope John Paul II was a strong advocate. With such respect as the foundation, concrete actions that foster peace can take place.
- Action. In Pope Benedict's message in 2007, he said that peace is both a gift and a task. We are given this gift by God, and it is up to us to respond to this gift. All three popes mentioned in one way or another that it is our duty to work for peace. These include acts of solidarity, initiating dialogues and the development of more just social structures. As Pope Paul VI said in his message in 1972: “If you want peace, work for justice.”
Importance of Formation
Peace is a long-term project. It is more than just patching wounds of violence and conflict. These wounds need to be healed, and an environment that is conducive to this end is necessary. As we know, wounds shouldn't be exposed to bacteria-prone environments; they should be kept clean. Working for peace is no different. A culture of peace must be fostered. Both popes, John Paul II and Benedict, wrote about the role of families as one of the main themes. Teaching and education are also frequently emphasized.
These messages are written for all to read. We don't need to be in a position of power to effect changes towards peace. We just need to be in the position to cooperate with the Lord. Peace is difficult, but it is not impossible.