We began Lent on Wednesday and we have many opportunities to deepen our faith and our relationship with Jesus in the next few weeks. This first weekend of the season tragically coincides with the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we marked this by a special vigil of prayer on Friday.

Turning away from war and seeking reconciliation are traditionally part of what Lent is about. The reconciliation with God which we seek for ourselves at this time of year through going to confession and acts of penance is a message for the whole of humanity: the reconciliation between God and humanity brought about through Our Lord’s death on the Cross and his resurrection is intended by God to bring about reconciliation among men and women created in his image. The special Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation, which we often use in this season, and many other prayers at Mass during this time, reflect on this. But for the Christian praying for peace and reconciliation is not an easy path, and it is often costly. For many years now Christians of all denominations have on Ash Wednesday daubed with blessed ash the walls of the Ministry of Defence buildings in Whitehall as a call to repentance directed at our whole country because of its immoral defence policies, particularly the nuclear deterrent. One of the significant events for Catholics this year is the sixtieth anniversary of Pope St John XXIII’s final letter, Pacem in Terris (‘Peace on Earth’), which he published in Holy Week 1963, not long before he died in June of that year: the letter significantly strengthened Catholic teaching against war, proclaiming war to be an unfit means of settling international disputes. This teaching was further strengthened by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and by all the popes since then; not least St John Paul II in his condemnation of both Iraq wars, Pope Benedict in his condemnation of nuclear deterrent policies and the present Holy Father.

In his 2020 letter Fratelli Tutti, which we looked at in Lent two years ago, he wrote:

“Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil, but those who counsel peace have joy” (Proverbs 12:20). Yet there are those who seek solutions in war, frequently fuelled by a breakdown in relations, hegemonic ambitions, abuses of power, fear of others and a tendency to see diversity as an obstacle. War is not a ghost from the past but a constant threat. Our world is encountering growing difficulties on the slow path to peace upon which it had embarked and which had already begun to bear good fruit’. (Section 256)

War is a dead end; it is because of the ways in which our teachings have developed that some have suggested, (including the Catholic theologian Professor Tina Beattie) that the Catholic Church has become ‘virtually pacifist’. Sadly what the war has exposed, among other things, is the inability of many Catholics to realise how much our teachings have developed in the last century or so. The pope’s denunciation of war is not simply directed at aggressors like President Putin, backed by the Patriarch of Moscow; they challenge all of us. For Pope Francis reiterates in his letter that in Christian teaching the right to self-defence is affirmed but is not absolute. It is very hard to write this, but this is a challenge for the people of Ukraine after all they have suffered in the last year. It is also a challenge to countries which claim to be their allies, particularly in countries like ours where militarism is glorified so much.

None of this is easy; by questioning what seems to be accepted wisdom I find myself disagreeing with many people with whom I normally agree and whom I respect. But the pope has stressed again and again the need for dialogue and negotiations, which will have to happen sooner or later; this has meant that he hasn’t always been popular in Ukraine. War poisons every human relationship – it is always a poisoned tree. In many respects Francis is a true successor to Benedict XV who tried so hard to bring about a negotiated end to the Great War over a century ago.

In March we will celebrate ten years since Pope Francis’ election, and to mark it our Lent course on Wednesday evenings will look at different aspects of the Holy Father’s teaching and vision for the Church. As in recent years there will be a live-streamed talk in church at 7.30 pm followed by a Zoom discussion. The sessions have been timed not to clash with the Lent course being organised by Churches Together in Beckenham and the parish renovation meetings: with regard to the latter, I hope that the talks will complement those discussions, as the pope’s vision for the synodal pathway [also covered in his message for Lent this year, Lent 2023: Lenten Penance and the Synodal Journey] is important for our plans for the future of the parish.

Fr Ashley