The picture in our Newsletter shows Pope Francis celebrating Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on 1 January, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Since the late 1960s the Catholic Church has kept New Year’s Day also as the Day of Prayer for Peace in the World. In England and Wales this day of prayer is moved to this Sunday every January. In this parish, encouraged many years ago by a pastoral letter from the late Archbishop Michael Bowen, we also mark this by means of a second collection for the work of the Catholic peace organisation Pax Christi. For details of its work and material for Peace Sunday this weekend, see their website.
However, it is not easy promoting Peace Sunday. Many clergy in the country are indifferent, and the second collection is not compulsory for parishes; you get the impression that people are much more at home with Remembrance Sunday in November. Marching in tune with the rest of the country is much easier than asking awkward questions based on our faith. We have to do this on Peace Sunday because every year the pope issues a special message for the day of prayer; a few years ago some of you came to a special teaching session we had in the hall about a selection of the messages since the first one from St Paul VI in the late 60s. The messages aim to take forward the condemnation of modern warfare and the arms race in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the letter about peace in the world written by St John XXIII in 1963, Pacem in Terris.
This year’s message is entitled Peace as a Journey of Hope: Dialogue, Reconciliation and Ecological Conversion. You can read the whole thing on the Vatican website: click here. There’s a great deal in the Holy Father’s message – he strongly links our condemnation of war to the urgent task of changing the way we treat the beautiful world which God has created. I simply want to concentrate on one thing here. The pope wrote the message shortly after his visit to Japan in the autumn of last year, and at the beginning of the message he reflects on this and what he learnt from the Hibakusha, the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. At one point he writes, quoting what he said in Japan: ‘The Hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are among those who currently keep alive the flame of collective conscience, bearing witness to succeeding generations to the horror of what happened in August 1945 and the unspeakable sufferings that have continued to the present time. Their testimony awakens and preserves the memory of the victims, so that the conscience of humanity may rise up in the face of every desire for dominance and destruction.’
This message of fraternity and reconciliation between peoples, calling for a real change of heart, is the only path to peace. A blind alley are international policies which depend on fear and the threat of destruction. Earlier in the letter he writes, again referring back to his words in Japan: ‘…Our world is paradoxically marked by “a perverse dichotomy that tries to defend and ensure stability and peace through a false sense of security sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust, one that ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any form of dialogue. Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation… Every threat-ening situation feeds mistrust and leads people to withdraw into their own safety zone. Mistrust and fear weaken relationships and increase the risk of violence, creating a vicious circle that can never lead to a relationship of peace. Even nuclear deterrence can only produce the illusion of security. We cannot claim to maintain stability in the world through the fear of annihilation, in a volatile situation, suspended on the brink of a nuclear abyss and enclosed behind walls of indifference. As a result, social and economic decisions are being made that lead to tragic situations where human beings and creation itself are discarded rather than protected and preserved. How, then, do we undertake a journey of peace and mutual respect? How do we break the unhealthy mentality of threats and fear? How do we break the current dynamic of distrust?’.
This is why the Church unequivocally denounces policies of nuclear deterrence – as practised by countries like our own. They offer a false answer, and politicians who promote them are guilty of immorality and deceit. When you read the Holy Father’s words you can see why Peace Sunday is rather threatening to many people – but that should give us strength as Catholics as we pray for peace and for Pax Christi this weekend.