Two Heralds of Peace Canonized
Two 20th century popes will be raised to the altars on Sunday 27 April: both made pursuit of peace a priority.
The pursuit of peace, the promotion of peace and its maintenance are foundational values of the EU and the basic key to understanding the imperative to European integration. President Herman Van Rompuy’s mantra, whenever presenting the EU and its mission, insists that it is “a peace project.” In the Newman Lecture which he delivered on 11 February this year at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, our COMECE President Cardinal Reinhard Marx concluded his address by highlighting and saluting the peace dividend of an EU where unity and diversity were equally prized.
In the entire history of the Church, only two popes have been officially canonized [the canonization process, as we know it, only took shape in the early 13th century; before that sainthood was by acclamation or the result of popular devotion]. They were the 16th century Pope Pius V (whose Dominican habit set the papal sartorial trend and is now still worn by the Pope, even if he is a Jesuit) and the highly controversial Pope Pius X, who died on the day Brussels fell to the Germans 1914. Now two further 20th century popes are to be canonised on the same day, Sunday 27 April, and top of the list of the virtues which qualify them to be raised to the altars must be that both were “heralds of peace.”
The young don Angelo Roncalli, priest of the diocese of Bergamo, recalled in old age [as resident of the Apostolic Palace] being at the death bed of his bishop, Giacomo Radini Tedeschi, whose biography he was writing “in the thick of World War I in 1916”, and noted “his final prayer [was] peace, peace … I would like that to be my last prayer as Pope.” In 1963 the Cold War was at its most tense and the Cuban missile crisis risked spilling over into nuclear conflagration, but the prophetic voice of Pope John XXIII dared to speak of peace. The encyclical letter Pacem in Terris, published on Maundy Thursday 1963, was the dying “good Pope John’s” last will and testament.
John XXIII was proud of having opened the windows of the Church on the world and hoped that Vatican II, the ecumenical council he had called, would spearhead a new relationship with the world, no longer adversarial but open and co-operative. John now spoke to the entire world [including, he hoped, the Kremlin and the White House], the first time a pope was to look beyond the Catholic fold and address “all men of good will.”
A recourse to arms was no way to solve international tensions and disputes, the Pope insisted, negotiation was the solution. But the creation of peace would always be a work in progress. Individual societies and relations between countries and power blocks, could only be guaranteed long term once human rights were respected and justice for all pursued at every level.
This encyclical was not only an appeal for peace, it provided – using the language of the UN and the Council of Europe – the ingredients for lasting peace. It was not a Utopian dream, but a hard-headed meditation on what constitutes a just society, balancing respect for rights against the obligation for all to perform their moral duties. The spirit of this encyclical was to shape the social thinking of Vatican II and the new pontificate of Paul VI.
Pope John Paul II, whose experience of armed conflict and of the Cold War was very different and a great deal more painful than Pope John XXIII, never wrote an encyclical letter on the issue of peace as such. His lengthy pontificate witnessed a sea-change in international relations, not least the collapse of Soviet Communism, the transformation of his native Poland to a pluralist democracy and, just the year before his death in 2005, the enlargement of the EU to embrace all of the former Soviet satellite states, not least Poland itself. Not that John Paul II did not regularly speak of peace, and eloquently too.
It is two great gestures, among the most powerful of his pontificate, that give John Paul II his undisputed credentials as a “herald of peace”. They provide the iconic images of his papacy.
The first was the meeting with representatives of all world religions at Assisi on Monday [deliberately chosen as it was not a holy day for any of the participants] 26 October 1986 to fast and pray for peace. In this visionary and controversial initiative, John Paul II wanted to draw on the “profound [spiritual] resources” of the world religions to pray for the world owned by all yet the exclusive property of none. Here was a unique event, more eloquent than any encyclical, witness to how peace and concord could be achieved, and an expression of its fruits.
The second was during John Paul II’s visit to the Holy Land in the millennial year 2000. Having visited Yad Vashem a few days earlier, on Sunday 26 March the Pope stood at the Wailing Wall, caressing its stones and leaving a prayer nestled in one of its crevices. The prayer was short but it contained an acknowledgement of past sins against the Jewish people, forgiveness, reconciliation, a new beginning and a commitment to peace.
When the two popes are canonized on Sunday 27 April by their first non-European successor, few citizens of Europe who are living in peace into the third generation will doubt the contribution of these two prophetic men of God and sons of the Church to that enormous achievement.
Patrick H. Daly