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March Article for RI Catholic


Fifty years ago on Holy Thursday, April 11, 1963, Pope John XXIII signed and gave to the whole world his final statement on peace, "Pacem in Terris," an encyclical that is still considered the modern Church's greatest word on peace in the world. Pope John was a dying man at the time. He never appeared publicly after that. Seven weeks later Cardinal Montini (Pope Paul VI) said: "To gather up his whole influence and his final message of peace, perhaps never before in our time has the human word (the word of a master, a leader, a prophet, a pope) rung out so loudly and won such affection throughout the whole world." The next day, June 3, 1963, Pope John XXIII died uttering the words, "Lord, you know that I love you."

The encyclical is addressed to the whole world, not just to Catholics. It is an appeal to all people. The basic premise of the entire document is that the law of God should determine every relationship between people, nations and the world. Pope John calls us to face the reality of the day but in the context of God's law not only national interests. Currently 60 countries are at war, involving 389 different interest groups.

The major part of Pope John's text concerns the rights and responsibilities of individuals and states, particularly toward those who are oppressed and poor. He invites us to reorient ourselves in relation to others in justice and compassion. Operating from the premise that "Every human being is a person," he delineates all the rights that this entails: life, food, rest, medical care, social services, respect, freedom, pursuit of art, education, freedom to worship, opportunity to work, right to assemble. With every right is a responsibility. "It is not enough, for example, to acknowledge and respect everyone's right to the means of subsistence if we do not strive to the best of our ability for a sufficient supply of what is necessary for sustenance." Mutual collaboration is the ideal, and force is not considered an acceptable alternative. "Any human society that is established on relations of force must be regarded as inhuman."

Aware that peace cannot exist within a situation of injustice or violence, Pope John gives specific changes that must occur before peace can be attempted. Racism has to be eliminated. The media must present the truth from all sides. Ethnic groups within a nation have to be treated fairly. Political refugees ought to be accepted as persons. Advanced countries have obligations to poorer ones.

The arms race is viewed with the critical eye of a peacemaker. "It is with deep sorrow that we noted the enormous stocks of armaments that have been and still are being made in more economically developed countries, with a vast outlay of intellectual and economic resources." A by-product of the arms race is fear. "Consequently people live in constant fear lest the storm that every moment threatens should break upon them with dreadful violence and the mere continuance of nuclear tests, undertaken with war in mind, can seriously jeopardize various kinds of life on earth."

For any nation to even consider basing their international relations on anything but power, and usually the power of weapons, is a cataclysmic shift in behavioral and thought processes. Yet, this man, who spent much of his life in diplomatic positions in countries where the Catholic Church was not accepted, reminds us that the only negotiations that ever work are those that are based on mutual collaboration and respect. "The fundamental principle on which our present peace depends must be replaced by another, which declares that the true and solid peace of nations consists not in equality of arms but in mutual trust alone. Let them (nations) study the problem until they find that point of agreement from which it will be possible to commence to go forward towards accords that will be sincere, lasting and fruitful."

To understand the way Pope John was trying to explicate, we must start from the premise that war is not an option and then see what our alternatives are. Our social environment and history make this seem naive and simplistically unrealistic. Our imaginations need stretching and our faith strengthening. We are so used to war and the illusion that it works in the long run, that we cannot conceive international relations without it. "In an age such as ours which prides itself on its atomic energy, it is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated."

Pope John understood the drastic gospel approach he was proclaiming. Being a practical man, he called for massive educational efforts: apostolic training for the laity and religious education that extends beyond childhood. An informed faith is necessary to live as a person of faith in society. New methods of relating are encouraged at all levels of society: among individuals, among citizens and their countries, among nations, among families, among the community of all humankind. "This is a most exalted task, for it is the task of bringing about true peace in the order established by God."

The work of peace "is an imperative of duty; it is a requirement of love." Pope John's desires and designs for peace found an echo in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church, the main document from the Second Vatican Council. They are also reflected in the American bishops' statement, The Challenge of Peace, in 1983.

United with Christ the Prince of Peace and our brother Pope John XXIII, we pray today his final words to us: "May God enkindle the wills of all, so that they may overcome the barriers that divide, cherish the bonds of mutual charity, understand others, and pardon those who have done them wrong; by virtue of God's action, may all people of the earth become as sisters and brothers, and may the most longed for peace blossom forth and reign always among us."

Article originally published in The Rhode Island Catholic.


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