The pope’s weekly Angelus message, named for the prayer it accompanies, is generally a routine occurrence akin to a Sunday homily. On September 1st, however, Pope Francis chose this venue to make an important announcement: the proclamation of Saturday, September 7th, 2013 as “a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world.” Not only Catholics but people around the world of all faiths were encouraged to participate “in whatever way they can”—and participate they did. As many of us prayed and fasted from our homes and many Catholic dioceses held special prayer services in response to the pope’s call, a throng of people filled St. Peter’s Square for the four-hour prayer vigil over which Pope Francis himself presided, in his words “invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world.”1
Both the announcement and the observance of that day made a powerful statement. At the vigil in Rome, the message was deepened by the potent language of liturgy, which often expresses itself in symbolic action. Perhaps most pointedly, five pairs of incense-bearers fulfilled this role at different points throughout the liturgy, coming from Syria, Egypt, the Holy Land, Russia, and the United States: all places with a stake in the Syrian conflict. Far more than a mere touchy-feely “let’s all get along” moment, this action by Catholics from enemy nations spoke volumes about the catholicity—that is, the universality by which the Catholic Church derives its name—that is greater than nationalism.
It was from the perspective of this catholicity that Pope Francis entreated all involved “not to close themselves in solely on their own interests, but rather to look at each other as brothers and decisively and courageously to follow the path of encounter and negotiation, and so overcome blind conflict.” And this call to think beyond self-interest and national interest was accompanied by a broad denunciation of violence as a means of resolving conflict, as the pope declared, “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence.” These sentiments were reinforced by the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Bishop Mario Toso, who further commented on the futility of the unending spiral of violence, urging Catholics around the world to call for diplomatic solutions, the day after the pope’s announcement.2 Pope Francis has reiterated his appeal for peace, both in Syria and more generally in all areas of conflict, several times since then: in his homily at the vigil itself,3 in his Sunday Angelus message the following day,4 and more recently in his audience with the Sant’Egidio community in Rome,5 each time emphasizing a deeper, nonviolent “war against evil” as the answer to the persistent cycle of violence that he continues to denounce with equal persistence.
By denouncing the cycle of violence, Pope Francis is continuing a trajectory set and followed by several of his predecessors, strengthening the Catholic Church’s commitment to the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. Because of its belief in universal human dignity, Catholic teaching maintains a presumption against taking life, and even the exceptions it has allowed for have been gradually but steadily narrowing, especially as increasingly inhumane weapons technologies have been developed in the modern era.6 Francis has strongly reaffirmed this trajectory of ever-greater consistency in his church’s commitment to life by voicing a firm “no to violence in all its forms,” including the profoundly unnatural deaths caused by arms proliferation.
After all that has happened in church life and global politics, one lingering question remains: did the prayers work? Some may note that it was a few days following the worldwide day of fasting and prayer that a diplomatic resolution to the international crisis around Syria presented itself almost by accident. It would be fallacious to assume a direct causal relationship simply from the timing of these events, yet all events have consequences, and things cannot not be in some way different than they would have otherwise been. As for exactly what difference the prayers made amid a tangled web of other factors, it is impossible to say for sure. The pope’s apostolic nuncio (an ecclesial delegate of sorts) in Damascus, Archbishop Mario Zenari, is convinced that both the tragic use of chemical weapons against civilians and the pope’s prayer vigil contributed to the multilateral decision to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile while avoiding a military intervention, calling this a double miracle.7 In any case, Pope Francis made it clear that the church’s prayer was meant to be heard on earth as in heaven, saying in his initial announcement, “Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace!” [Vatican Radio, “Pope: Angelus appeal for peace,” September 1, 2013.] People of all faiths and of no faith can affirm that these prayers were indeed heard on earth, and while the events that followed are still too complicated for post hoc reasoning, the precarious diplomacy that somehow made its way through tense negotiations full of distrust on all sides may well have needed every factor that was in its favor to tip the scales toward the cause of peace.
It is important to remember that, while a larger-scale global crisis has been averted, the crisis situation in Syria and its environs is far from over. We must not allow our concern for those affected by the ongoing violence to fade away with the headlines. This is all the more reason the voice and action of an ancient church continue to be needed as a witness to the dignity of life, nonviolently defending and assisting the vulnerable in every situation.
1. Vatican Radio, “Pope: Angelus appeal for peace,” September 1, 2013. http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/09/01/pope:_angelus_appeal_for_peace_(full_text)/en1-724673
2. Vatican Radio, “Bishop Toso: war is spiral that never ends,” September 2, 2013. http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/09/02/monsignor_toso:_war_is_spiral_that_never_ends/en1-724990
3. News.va, “Prayer Vigil for Peace: Words of Pope Francis,” September 7, 2013. http://www.news.va/en/news/prayer-vigil-for-peace-homily-of-pope-francis
4. Vatican Radio, “Pope urges all to continue praying for peace, condemns arms proliferation,” September 9, 2013. http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/09/09/pope_urges_all_to_continue_praying_for_peace,_condemns_arms/in2-727080
5. Vatican Information Service, “To the St. Egidio Community: Dialogue Conquers War,” September 30, 2013. http://www.news.va/en/news/to-the-st-egidio-community-dialogue-conquers-war
6. See Vatican Council II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et spes), December 7, 1965 (available at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html), esp. 79-82; and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” May 3, 1983.
7. Vatican Radio, “The victims of chemical warfare and Pope’s prayer hasten change in Syria: Nuncio,” September 17, 2013. http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2013/09/17/the_victims_of_chemical_warfare_and_popes_prayer_hasten_change_in/in2-729424