by Kenneth D. Whitehead
The intense period following the media reporting on “wars and rumors of wars” (Mt 24:6; Mk 13:7) leading up to the eventual agreement between the United States and Russia whereby Syria’s stock of chemical weapons is supposed to be inventoried and turned over to international control proved to be especially intense for Catholics when Pope Francis himself decided to intervene, declaring September 7, 2013 the vigil of the Feast of the Birth of Mary, Queen of Peace to be a “day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world.”
That the Holy Father was in favor of peace was hardly surprising, but coming as it did amid the fast-breaking developments that followed the Bashar Al-Assad government’s August 2 sarin gas attack that killed some 1400 Syrian civilians, including children, the pope’s initiative instantly got the world’s attention.
Pope Francis issued his call to the whole world, but it was addressed in particular to Catholics and to “our non-Catholic Christian brothers and followers of other religions, and all men of good will.” He thus invited everybody to join Catholics in fasting and prayers for peace. “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake,” he declared. “War begets war; violence begets violence.”
The pope’s call came at a critical juncture when it looked as if the United States was going to launch a retaliatory air strike against Syria for resorting to the use of chemical weapons.
While all the intense back-and-forth discussions were going on, Pope Francis proceeded with his planned prayer vigil on September 7, as announced. More than 100,000 faithful crowded into St. Peter’s Square to join their prayers to those of the pontiff. The Scripture reading was from the Gospel according to John describing the appearances of Jesus after His resurrection to His apostles in the closed upper room (cf. Jn 20:19, 26), where Jesus invoked peace on them, using the standard Hebrew (and Semitic) formula and greeting, Shalom aleichem (“Peace be on you”). So it was not just “peace” as opposed to “war,” but peace in all its dimensions.
Pope Francis had the image of the Virgin Mary, Salus Populi Romani, enthroned in St. Peter’s Square. The Holy Father led the Rosary and spoke movingly of the need for all to look to Christ on the cross, where “we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence. Death is not answered with the silence of death. In the silence of the cross the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace is spoken” hardly the language typically employed in international relations; the pope manifestly employs a different vocabulary.
The pope’s heartfelt plea and prayer were echoed in hundreds of individual prayer vigils and events organized in churches and homes around the world in response to his request. His call for prayers for peace obviously resonated both widely and deeply. In Syria itself the Grand Mufti led Sunni Muslims in prayer at the Umayyad Mosque. Hardly anybody welcomed the prospect of a wider war.
No sooner was the postponement of the American air strike announced, however, than a priest at a prayer vigil that I myself attended in northern Virginia confidently declared that the averting of a wider war had definitely been brought about because of the prayers that the pope had asked for. It was not plainly specified whether this was truly an answer to prayers that came from above, but it certainly was presented as definitely an “answer”! And there actually were a couple of news stories describing Pope Francis as the “leader” of the forces that had prevented the United States from intervening in another war in the Middle East. There may well even have been some truth to this, in fact.
The Church generally and wisely discourages identifying concrete and immediate results as answers to prayers in such post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this therefore because of this”) situations. But the fact that the pope had stirred up such a widespread negative response to the threat of a wider war was surely noticed by and perhaps even had some influence on the movers and shakers involved in the Syrian situation.
Even with the postponement of an air strike, however, the war in Syria was still very far from over. Far more than the 1400 innocent victims of the sarin gas attack, there had been up to 100,000 deaths in all in the two years of war, along with some 2 million refugees driven out of Syria and as many as 5 million displaced inside. However efficacious the prayers called for by the pope may have been, only American involvement in the war, not the war itself, was halted and then only for the moment. While this may in the long run prove to have been a more abundant blessing than we can possibly know at present, it most definitely should not be taken as a one-for-one answer to papal prayers.
So what is the point, then, of such papal pleas and prayers for peace? In fact, such pleas and prayers for peace represent no new phenomenon in the world. In modern times alone, the efforts of Pope Benedict XV to turn hearts and minds against World War I like those of Popes Pius XI and Pius XII against World War II are instances that quickly come to mind. Nor were these papal efforts and prayers entirely in vain, even though both wars continued on anyway. Yet in no way did this seem to discourage the popes themselves. We may recall in particular, for example, the plea and prayer of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations in 1965, when he cried out, jamais plus la guerre! variously translated as “No more war!” or “War never again!” Pope Francis repeated this same cry in his own call for prayer vigils against the war in Syria. Similarly and inevitably, his words also recalled those of Blessed Pope John XXIII in the latter’s famous 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, “Peace on Earth,” a title taken from the Gospel itself.
In spite of all this considerable effort and prayer on the part of the popes, however, wars have continuously gone on. To name some of the most salient of them since Pope Paul VI cried out, “war never again,” though, we only need mention Afghanistan, Algeria, the Balkans, the Congo, Georgia, India-Pakistan, Iran-Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda-Burundi, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and on and on. We are almost never, it seems, without a war somewhere, as a matter of fact.
Yet it is precisely because wars do go on and on in this fashion that the popes, the vicars of Christ on earth, are called to be advocates and messengers of peace in a harsh and warlike world a world apparently as prone to violence and to war as it is prone to sin. In a world in which, as the prophet Jeremiah long ago pointed out that “there is no peace” (Jer 6:14), there is nevertheless an urgent need for somebody to stand up and bear witness against this whole unholy state of affairs.
Why should it not be the popes, the successors of Peter, upon whom Christ founded His holy Church? The popes should continue to plead and call for prayers for peace, even against the odds. Moreover, it seems that the popes in the modern world have effectively already decided that it is an integral part of their Christ-appointed mission, namely, to serve as voices for peace in the world, a world too often though not always little inclined to hear and heed their voices. While they cannot in the end always, or perhaps even often, succeed and prevent actual war, they can at least bear witness against it; they can remind the world what the reign of Christ should be like.
And this is precisely the papal policy and practice that Pope Francis confirmed on October 3 in an address to a conference marking the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris. This encyclical, issued in the midst of the Cold War, “bore fruit,” according to Pope Francis, even though the quest for lasting peace based on justice and solidarity must continue. Advocacy for the continuation of this quest for peace now indeed does seem to be a fixed and unalterable policy and practice of the modern popes.
Kenneth D. Whitehead is the author of, among other books, The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2009). He is married to Margaret Whitehead, of the Voices editorial board, and lives in Falls Church, Virginia.
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