The start of the new year finds many people around the world in need of healing from political, economic, and social injustice – some say more than ever before.
Pope Francis has responded to the call for creative and active nonviolence from Catholic peacemakers around the world and has offered a World Day of Peace message on the need for nonviolence as a style of politics.
As we enter a new year with anticipation, we look back at 2016, in which we experienced a U.S. presidential election marred by hate speech, bigotry, and even violence, and a country bitterly divided and uncertain about the future. In the wider world, Maryknoll missioners witnessed an unprecedented level of war and violent conflicts, record-breaking numbers of refugees and displaced persons seeking shelter, and human rights abuses on a scale in many places that approached genocide.
At the same time, as followers of Jesus, we are called “to always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15).
In his 2017 World Day of Peace Message Pope Francis reflects “our broken world” and repeats his observation that “we find ourselves engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal” or world war three ‘in installments’.
In the face of such devastation, the Holy Father speaks eloquently in his message of active nonviolence as the only sure way to peace:
“Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world. At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all.”
In his brief and very readable World Day of Peace Message, Pope Francis speaks of Jesus as the model for creative and active nonviolence:
“Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (Mark 7:21)”
“Whoever accepts the Good News of Jesus is able to acknowledge the violence within and be healed by God’s mercy, becoming in turn an instrument of reconciliation. In the words of Saint Francis of Assisi: ‘As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that you have greater peace in your hearts.’”
With striking clarity, Pope Francis declares that: “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” He recommends the Sermon on the Mount as a “manual” for peacemaking and challenges political and business leaders, international institutions and legislators to engage in active nonviolence inspired by the Beatitudes.
Refuting the image of nonviolence as passivity and surrender, the Holy Father declares that history has shown that active nonviolence is more powerful than violence, citing the examples of Martin Luther King in the U.S., Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Leymah Gbowee and the thousands of her fellow Liberian women whose nonviolent protests and pray-ins led to the peaceful end of the second civil war in Liberia.
Pope Francis notes that the success of active nonviolence begins in the family and in our personal practice that models hope in the midst of a violent world:
“I wish peace to every man, woman and child, and I pray that the image and likeness of God in each person will enable us to acknowledge one another as sacred gifts endowed with immense dignity. Especially in situations of conflict, let us respect this, our “deepest dignity”, and make active nonviolence our way of life.”
The pope emphasizes respect for the human dignity of our enemy as the wellspring of Gospel nonviolence. This insight was borne out time and time again in the testimonies of Catholic practitioners of active nonviolence at the Vatican conference on Nonviolence and Just Peace last April.
One such testimony was given by Jesuit Father Francisco de Roux in Colombia. In sharing his experience of seeing many of his companions killed in the war in Colombia even as they practiced nonviolent conflict transformation, Fr. Francisco said:
“Nevertheless, we kept looking for peace…talking with the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the army, trying to demonstrate that there was a way to work together, if we took the risk of opening ourselves up to human dignity, present in each and every one of us…the dignity we as Christians see as the manifestation of God’s mystery, the gift of His absolute love in each and every person, in each and every creature, in the world.”
The pope clearly was moved by the witness given by Catholic peace activists and theologians whose conference at the Vatican sparked a new Catholic Nonviolence Initiative of which the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns is a member.
In fact, Pope Francis selected active nonviolence as his theme for this 50th World Day of Peace Message at the request of participants of the conference. It is the first significant teaching of a pope on active nonviolence and clearly Pope Francis sees this as a priority for the Church:
“I pledge the assistance of the Church in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence.”
Pope Francis concludes his World Day of Peace message with words of hope and solidarity to carry us forward:
“In 2017, may we dedicate ourselves prayerfully and actively to banishing violence from our hearts, words and deeds, and to becoming nonviolent people and to build nonviolent communities that care for our common home. “Nothing is impossible if we turn to God in prayer. Everyone can be an artisan of peace.”