Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Pope Francis: Christ is Born, Prince of Peace in Times of War

In his 2023 Christmas message Urbi et Orbi (to the City [Rome] and to the World), Pope Francis addresses specifically the various (and changing) conflicts in what he has consistently called “World War III being fought piecemeal” all over the earth. This Christmas, the world of war has a new and terrible “front”—it rages in the land of Jesus’s birth, His historical human life, His public ministry, His redeeming death and resurrection. It involves a terrorist faction embedded within Palestinian Gaza that ruthlessly attacked Israeli citizens on October 7, killing 1500+ people in cold blood, and kidnapping hundreds of hostages, many of whom remain in captivity. But it also involves an extreme and disproportionate response by Israel’s immense armed forces to crush Gaza, to bring the chaos of war to an entire population of some two million people in order to eliminate the terrorists. Francis pleads for “an end to the military operations with their appalling harvest of innocent civilian victims,” and “for a solution to the desperate humanitarian situation by an opening to the provision of humanitarian aid” for the millions of Palestinian people trapped in Gaza, many of whom are children. 

The Pope asks us to pray for peace, justice,  and the resolution of conflicts in Israel and Palestine, as well as in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and in Ukraine—renewing again his ardent prayer for those he has called a ‘martyred people’ and his commitment to co-suffer with then and beg the Lord to ‘empower them’ with His love: “Contemplating the Baby Jesus, I implore peace for Ukraine. Let us renew our spiritual and human closeness to its embattled people, so that through the support of each of us, they may feel the concrete reality of God’s love.” He also prays for Armenia and Azerbaijan, and, in Africa, the region of the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and Sudan, as well as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. Then, with an awareness of a dangerous division that none of us should take for granted, he prays for “fraternal bonds” to grow among to people of the Korean peninsula and lead to “lasting peace” there. 

I would add that there is no historical or ethnic basis for the division of Korea into two countries, but that “North Korea” remains only as a client state of China, with an enormously disproportionate military force and an active nuclear weapons program, and with seemingly unfathomable ambitions and fears. Francis’s call for “processes of dialogue and reconciliation” is not an empty expression, but an insistence that Korean people take up again and again a great work of mercy, a dialogue that seeks not temporary compromises but that aspires to a more profound common language, and that perseveres even through failures and misunderstandings—a dialogue that is above all a prayer for a new unity and reconciliation as a gift from God, a gift of a new possibility beyond all the impossibilities of a broken human situation. 

Finally, Francis prays for “political authorities and all persons of good will in the Americas to devise suitable ways to resolve social and political conflicts, to combat forms of poverty that offend the dignity of persons, to reduce inequality and to address the troubling phenomenon of migration movements.” This is a realistic set of goals that, once again, call for works of mercy that embody justice while also transforming and transcending justice. Mercy is a form of love that becomes, in specific situations, a responsibility for individuals and societies. Countries can adopt reasonable immigration policies, but the terrible suffering that prompts and accompanies “migration movements” in the Western Hemisphere confronts every nation in the region. It is not only wrong; it is impossible for the people of any nation to isolate themselves, to ‘seal themselves off’ from the fundamental human responsibility to love our neighbors and help them in distress—neighbors, moreover, whom Jesus has identified with Himself.

Below are further, more general reflections from Pope Francis’s Christmas message, wherein he makes clear that our concern for those who are sufferings, and our work for peace and reconciliation even in this world, are not a naturalistic reduction of the Gospel (contrary to certain rash claims). Rather, the central focus of all our prayer and effort is eternal life: “an unprecedented gift: the hope of being born for heaven” through Jesus the Word made flesh, “the Only-Begotten Son of the Father” who “gives us power to become children of God” in His Kingdom which will have no end. Still, it is in this world—which is the road we journey upon toward eternal life—that we encounter Jesus incarnate, who calls us to follow Him, love Him, and share “the tender love of God” with the least of His brothers and sisters. For their sake too (at not only them) we are called to reject sin, oppose sin, and—as God’s grace enables us—to unmask sin. Sin has many hiding places, some of which are very subtle. Sometimes prophetic denunciation is necessary. In this respect, the prophetic consistency of the Popes over the course of my entire life (of nearly 61 years) deserves the most serious attention.

There is a specific realm of human activity that is has been denounced, repeatedly, by every Pope since Saint John XXIII. Pope Francis mentions it again here: “arms production, sales, and trade.” This immense system, this international endeavor mired in obscurity, this devourer of immeasurable profits and ‘servant’ of so many violent ‘interests’ from terrorists and insurgents to enormous mercenary armed forces (the ‘Wagner Group’ is just one of who-knows-how-many) to crime syndicates to governments with technologically advanced weapons and huge financial resources … we humans in the 21st century world have created this monster, and we continue to feed it with flabbergasting amounts of money.

There is something wrong with this whole business. Whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword. Of course, we have the right (and duty) of defense against unjust aggression. But is the “arms race,” “the arms trade,” the hoarding of immense weapons of death and destruction the only way for humans to live together safely in this world? Many people say, “yes, it’s the only way.” But I am not satisfied with such conditions. This is not how humans are supposed to live.

But is there another way? We have to pray and beg Jesus to come, to show us other ways to seek peace, to live as peacemakers (even in the midst of war) because fostering healing and reconciliation involves the works of mercy that serve the glory of Jesus Christ in the world. Mercy reflects the light of God’s kingdom even in darkness of an ambivalent world. And mercy witnesses to Christ’s presence here and now, drawing us and all things to Himself. It was for mercy that He came to dwell with us, to be with us through every storm, to open our hearts to our suffering neighbors, to love them, to love even our enemies, to forgive, to be humble, to be peacemakers, to be children of God.

Here are more excerpts from Pope Francis’s message:

“We are full of hope and trust as we realize that the Lord has been born for us; that the eternal Word of the Father, the infinite God, has made his home among us. He became flesh; he came ‘to dwell among us’ (John 1:14). This is the good news that changed the course of history!

“The message of Bethlehem is indeed ‘good news of great joy’ (Luke 2:10). What kind of joy? Not the passing happiness of this world, not the glee of entertainment but a joy that is ‘great’ because it makes us great. For today, all of us, with all our shortcomings, embrace the sure promise of an unprecedented gift: the hope of being born for heaven. Yes, Jesus our brother has come to make his Father our Father; a small child, he reveals to us the tender love of God, and much more. He, the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, gives us ‘power to become children of God’ (John 1:12). This is the joy that consoles hearts, renews hope and bestows peace. It is the joy of the Holy Spirit: the joy born of being God’s beloved sons and daughters.

“Brothers and sisters, today in Bethlehem, amid the deep shadows covering the land, an undying flame has been lighted. Today the world’s darkness has been overcome by the light of God, which ‘enlightens every man and woman’ (John 1:9). Brothers and sisters, let us exult in this gift of grace! Rejoice, you who have lost confidence in your certitudes, for you are not alone: Christ is born for you! Rejoice, you who have abandoned all hope, for God offers you his outstretched hand; he does not point a finger at you, but offers you his little baby hand, in order to set you free from your fears, to relieve you of your burdens and to show you that, in his eyes, you are more valuable than anything else. Rejoice, you who find no peace of heart, for the ancient prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled for your sake: ‘a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and he is named… Prince of Peace’ (9:6). Scripture reveals that his peace, his kingdom, ‘will have no end’ (9:7).

“In the Scriptures, the Prince of Peace is opposed by the ‘Prince of this world’ (John 12:31), who, by sowing the seeds of death, plots against the Lord, ‘the lover of life’ (cf. Wisdom 11:26). We see this played out in Bethlehem, where the birth of the Saviour is followed by the slaughter of the innocents. How many innocents are being slaughtered in our world! In their mothers’ wombs, in odysseys undertaken in desperation and in search of hope, in the lives of all those little ones whose childhood has been devastated by war. They are the little Jesuses of today, these little ones whose childhood has been devastated by war.

“To say ‘yes’ to the Prince of Peace, then, means saying ‘no’ to war, to every war and to do so with courage, to the very mindset of war, an aimless voyage, a defeat without victors, an inexcusable folly. To say ‘no’ to war means saying ‘no’ to weaponry. The human heart is weak and impulsive; if we find instruments of death in our hands, sooner or later we will use them. And how can we even speak of peace, when arms production, sales and trade are on the rise? Today, as at the time of Herod, the evil that opposes God’s light hatches its plots in the shadows of hypocrisy and concealment. How much violence and killing takes place amid deafening silence, unbeknownst to many! People, who desire not weapons but bread, who struggle to make ends meet and desire only peace, have no idea how many public funds are being spent on arms. Yet that is something they ought to know! It should be talked about and written about, so as to bring to light the interests and the profits that move the puppet-strings of war.

“Isaiah, who prophesied the Prince of Peace, looked forward to a day when ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation’, a day when men ‘will not learn war any more’, but instead ‘beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks’ (2:4). With God’s help, let us make every effort to work for the coming of that day!….

“From the manger, the Child Jesus asks us to be the voice of those who have no voice. The voice of the innocent children who have died for lack of bread and water; the voice of those who cannot find work or who have lost their jobs; the voice of those forced to flee their lands in search of a better future, risking their lives in grueling journeys and prey to unscrupulous traffickers.

“Brothers and sisters, we are approaching the season of grace and hope that is the Jubilee [year 2025], due to begin a year from now. May this time of preparation for the Holy Year be an opportunity for the conversion of hearts, for the rejection of war and the embrace of peace, and for joyfully responding to the Lord’s call, in the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners’ (61:1).

“Those words were fulfilled in Jesus (cf. Luke 4:18), who is born today in Bethlehem. Let us welcome him! Let us open our hearts to him, who is the Saviour, the Prince of Peace!”