By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
It may well be that the most significant and memorable event of the Year of Faith (which draws to a close on November 24th), was the day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and the Middle East on September 7th. With only a week’s notice, Pope Francis asked the entire Church (all 1.2 billion of us), to pray for peaceful and non-violent resolution of the civil war in Syria, which has already claimed 100,000 lives and forced an estimated 2 million refugees to flee the country.
Inviting other Christians, people of other religious faiths and men and women of goodwill to join us in prayer and self-denial, Pope Francis acted on the eve of a Congressional debate about a United States military strike against the government of Bashir al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. This military attack (presumably with bombs and missiles) would be in retaliation for his government’s alleged use of sarin gas (a deadly chemical weapon) against a neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus which took the lives of hundreds of civilians, including many children.
In calling for this day of prayer and fasting, Pope Francis condemned the use of chemical weapons and their possession, cautioned against any escalation of the violence or widening of the war and called for a ceasefire and urged all parties to seek a political and not a military solution to the crisis.
None of this is unexpected coming from the Vatican. The Holy See (and by extension, the Catholic Church) can be relied upon to recommend peaceful rather than violent solutions to international conflicts and disputes. Although the Catholic Church is not a ‘peace church’ in the same way as the Mennonites and the Quakers are, Catholic teaching, while admitting there are certain rare circumstances when war is morally justified (and may even, as a matter of justice and charity be morally required) begins with the presumption that the resort to arms and the use of violence is morally wrong and forbidden unless it can be demonstrated, using just war criteria, that it is morally permissible.
The just war teaching, like other Catholic social teaching, while firmly rooted in the gospel and divine revelation, is based on natural law. In this way, those who do not share with us our Christian faith or even belief in God, can, using reason alone, be persuaded by and apply the principles of the just war to both the decision to go to war and the conduct of nations and armies during war.
In a similar but striking way, Pope Francis spoke of the moral duty of every person of good will to pursue peace. In his announcement, he wrote:
“All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace. I make a forceful and urgent call to the entire Catholic Church, and also to every Christian or other confessions, as well as to the followers of every religion and to those brothers and sisters who do not believe: peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs to all of humanity.”
He went on to say:
“I repeat forcefully: it is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict that builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace. May the plea for peace rise up and touch the heart of everyone so they may lay down their weapons and let themselves be led by the desire for peace.”
But then, building on the foundation of a shared humanity and our ability to use reason to arrive at natural truth (in this case, that we are bound as human beings to pursue peace in every situation), he became a powerful evangelist.
Into the despair and hopelessness of the present war in Syria, at a time when the threat of a wider, even more violent and intractable war threatens, the Holy Father proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer. Why? because, as he writes, “Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace.”
He wanted us as a Church, as disciples and witnesses of Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the Light of the world, and praying for the intercession of his Mother, the Queen of Peace, to gather publicly in prayer and in a spirit of penance to invoke “God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world.”
September 7th was a powerful act of witness to Jesus Christ and to the way of life that he calls us to live as his disciples. It was at once a sign of contradiction because it contradicts the way of the world with its falsehoods and deceit, envy and hatred, distrust and suspicion and mercilessness and violence. On our knees we asked God to convert and to change our hearts and the hearts of all those who have taken up arms, and we appealed in prayer for all those in need and for an increase in our own love and care for the poor and the dispossessed of Syria and the Middle East.
At the same time, by gathering to pray, we were, despite our own frailty and sinfulness, witnesses to the transforming and incandescent love of God, revealed most fully and perfectly in the Person of Jesus, which illumines the darkness of sin, suffering and death. His light, his truth, his peace and his love, embodied and incarnated in the earthen vessels of Christians and of all those who seek dialogue, reconciliation and peace, are a shining beacon of hope for those who are hopeless and cynical and in despair.
Let us entrust ourselves and each other to our loving God, for whom nothing is impossible, and may the peaceful witness of our lives invite all men and women to faith in Christ, our Savior and our Hope.
Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for Syria, pray for us.Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org