I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s OK to be conflicted about the situation in the Middle East. I know I am. For in reality it is a very complicated, confusing and complex region.
Take the situation in Israel for example. On the one hand there is Hamas, a terrorist organization draped in the clothes of respectability due to their status as a government, firing rockets into the nation of Israel, a long-time ally of the United States, which does have the right to defend itself and its people. On the other hand there is Israel launching precise missile strikes in the midst of a civilian/non-combatant population in an attempt to stop the same Hamas. Israel justifies this action by saying that they warn civilians by dropping pamphlets alerting them of the attack.
While I don’t often agree with Jon Stewart, noted comedian and political satirist, I do believe that he has it right when he questioned “the effectiveness and humanity of Israel’s policies” on the Monday, July 21, 2014 edition of the Daily Show. And while Stewart’s reference may be dated, it only proves the point that this conflict between Palestine and Israel which is currently under a tenuous cease fire is far from over.
To make matters worse, militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (known as ISIS) have mounted an offensive against the Kurdish people in Northern Iraq, a region that has an increasing Christian population that has caused the United States to respond with airstrikes upon ISIS forces using warplanes and unmanned drones. Iraq has been a source of division and debate in our nation. While the United States has an obligation and a long standing history of aiding and protecting other countries in need, the American presence in the war in Iraq has had a high cost in lives for both the American and the Iraqi people. An added presence in a conflict once thought over, only fuels such fears of a long and protracted conflict with additional loss of human life.
The inherent problem is that, unlike books, movies and TV, there are no “good guys vs. bad guys”. While people and nations operate from an air of moral superiority, all war (even those conflicts seen as just) is an offense against the dignity of human life. And it is not just an issue that involves Jews and Muslims or Muslims against other Muslims. It deals with people, souls, and it is our duty as Catholic Christians to not only support our Christian brothers and sisters in need but to be witnesses to the world of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and of peace.
Pope Pius XII was faced with a similar situation during his pontificate. While it was right to fight against the atrocities of Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Pius XII understood that he was the shepherd of the whole world, not just of the Allies. And while he is criticized and accused of being “Hitler’s Pope”, Pius XII worked tirelessly for peace and walked a precarious line that preserved the Catholic Church’s ability to act and intervene in Christ’s name and to work for the protection of Jewish people wherever and whenever the Church could (for an unbiased account read Pierre Blet’s collection of papal correspondence in Pius XII and the Second World War).
Our current Holy Father has taken a similar tack. Pope Francis has spoken tirelessly for peace and has shown the world, by his example, his care for the poor and refuges, the needless victims of war. Pope Francis decried the human rights atrocities in Syria and asked the whole Church to pray for peace for a region that was on the verge of war.
This past Sunday, the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, was no exception as Pope Francis implored the Church to pray for peace in Iraq and for the plight of Christians there. Our Holy Father “tweets” about peace constantly, but these are far from just 140 characters on a screen. It is a symbol of the Gospel that Pope Francis lives out every single day — a Gospel in which all life is sacred, whether it be the life of one’s greatest ally or one’s greatest enemy.
In closing, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose feast day is this Wednesday, August 20th says this:
“Blessed,” he says, “are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Mt 5:9). Consider carefully that it is not the people who call for peace but those who make peace who are commended. For there are those who talk but do nothing (Mt 23:3). For just as it is not the hearers of the law but the doers who are righteous (Rom 2:13), so it is not those who preach peace but the authors of peace who are blessed.”
May we continue to pray and work for peace in our complicated world and to pray for our brothers and sisters afflicted by the ravages of war.
On Friday, March 21, the Romero Center will welcome Dr. Maryann Cusimano Love to present the annual Romero Lecture. This year’s theme is “Make Us Instruments of Peace: Peace-building in the 21st Century.” Dr. Cusimano Love is associate professor of international relations at The Catholic University of America, Washington. She is an author and editor of scholarly and popular works and has penned five best-selling children’s books. Dr. Cusimano Love serves as an advisor to the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Catholic bishops, the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, and the Jesuit Refugee Services. In anticipation of her forthcoming talk, the Catholic Star Herald interviewed Dr. Cusimano Love.
For more information on the lecture, and to buy tickets, click here.
What do Catholics need to know about the church’s teachings on peace?
The good news is that it is working. Peace is breaking out in the world today, in part because of the tireless efforts of the church around the world, and the impact of Catholic teaching on nonviolence, the Just War tradition (which is the foundation of all arms control agreements and efforts to limit war and protect civilians), and the emerging just peace tradition.
The challenge is that we are not bystanders to this success story; the church calls all of us to build peace. It is not somebody else’s job, or the job of soldiers and statesmen. It is our calling and commitment, as followers of the Prince of Peace. “Peace be with you” is not just a nice greeting we say to one another at Mass on Sunday. Peace is the way we are to live in the world and the gift we are to share with the world every day of the week.
Church teaching on peace continues to grow. Pope Francis calls on all baptized persons to be peacemakers, and offers his own peace plan, for how to practice deep listening and dialogue with people of different backgrounds and with whom we disagree.
Does the church bring any unique perspectives or resources to peace-building?
The church brings three “I’s” to peacebuilding: institutions, ideas, and imagination. Our global institutions such as Catholic Relief Services bring practical assistance to people in war zones, ministering to the most vulnerable while working to end the violence. Our institutions are both local and international, providing needed leverage and resources for peacebuilding. We worship a relational God in three persons, who calls us to greater communion; these ideas inspire the ways we build peace, starting with building peaceful persons and peaceful relationships as foundations of peaceful communities. That is different from others who start with governments of states to build peace; we put people first, before the interests of governments or countries. But more powerful even than our bricks and mortar institutions, and our ideas of peace, is our religious imagination. How do people build peace who have never known peace, in places like Colombia, the Philippines, or Sudan, where violent conflicts have gone on for decades? You can only build what you can imagine, and our religious imagination allows us to imagine peace even in countries where they have never experienced it. Our sacraments of reconciliation and Communion provide powerful healing in war-torn communities, and ways to reimagine how to live as the body of Christ, even with former enemies.
You have said that working for peace can heal not only political conflicts, but also divisions within the church. Can you say more about that?
Pope Francis is calling us away from internal church conflicts and back to our basic mission of serving God by serving others. We know how to do this, how to bridge the gap of sharp words and frayed bonds. We need to apply the practices of Catholic peace-building here at home, practices of reconciliation and participation. Principles and practices of Catholic peacebuilding have been learned at great cost in conflicts around the world, from the Philippines to Colombia. Ideas prominent in Catholic peacebuilding-participation, reconciliation, right relationship, and a long-term time horizon-stem from the principle of the sanctity of human life and dignity. To build peace, we have to be able, as John Paul Lederach, a scholar of peace-building at the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame, notes, “to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships that includes our enemies.” Pope Francis calls us to deep listening and respectful dialogue with people different from ourselves. That applies close to home in the church hall as well as to conflicts far away.
In addition to being an accomplished scholar, you have written a number of best-selling children’s books. Does this relate to your work on peace-building?
Yes. Peace education begins at home, in the stories we share. Children are our future, and families are where children learn to be peacebuilders. Parents and children are different; we move at different paces and sometimes want different things. My children want to stay up late, and I want them to go to bed. They want to jump in mud puddles and I want them to take baths. How do we solve conflicts and differences in our families? How do we respond to our differences in love? Too often our lives are so busy, with families torn in different directions or tethered to electronics, that we can forget that the greatest gift we can give our children is our time. My children’s books celebrate family time spent together, the various ways we can respect our differences and respond with love to each other. We don’t have to go to the Congo to build peace. It starts in our own kitchens and living rooms.
Bethany J. Welch, Ph.D. is the founding director of Aquinas Center, which is located on the campus of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Community in the heart of South Philadelphia. The former convent is being re-purposed as a space to foster mutual support and shared understanding. Parishioners and guests come together to express hospitality, promote education, and engage in service. In her column, Bethany reflects on a prayer service for peace in Syria she organized this past Saturday.
I think prayer changed the course of history last night.
One billion Catholics, and all people of good will, were asked by Pope Francis to fast and pray for peace in Syria on Saturday, September 7th. I was compelled to heed the call of this Jesuit pontiff who practices an active expression of faith that encourages global dialogue. I chose an hour when the AquinasCenter chapel would be available and with a few keystrokes I shared the date and time via social media. I put the word out to the parish in which our center is situated and to the organization’s supporters.
It was a few hours later when I realized I had no idea how to lead a prayer vigil or what would be involved in doing so in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural community of faith. Thankfully, Ampersand was making resources available for similar gatherings. I was able to adapt the material for the local community, but still remained nervous at my lack of experience in leading public or group prayer with Catholics. By the time I sat in the front pew of the chapel that evening I was sweating and nauseous. I have spoken to an auditorium of 800 people without notes before, but this was very far outside my comfort zone.
At 7:00 pm, the chapel slowly began to fill with parishioners and friends of Aquinas Center. I noticed that many in attendance had already been to a vigil Mass earlier that evening and then returned. Several small children sat on the floor near their parents while very elderly women clustered together. Time had not permitted me to gather translations for readings or prayers in the five different languages present in the room so someone had suggested we pray a decade of the rosary in these languages after each petition for peace. On the spot, lay leaders were recruited to lead a decade. Soon the room filled with overlapping responses in Vietnamese, Indonesian, Spanish, Tagalog, and English. It was a cacophony. It was beautiful.
We moved into silent prayer next. I played three instrumental songs and then stood and turned to address those gathered. The chapel was now overflowing and included people standing in the back. At that moment, it finally hit me that at least three dozen of the sixty or so assembled had experienced war first hand. They had fled oppressive regimes. They had lived in refugee camps. They have known too well the pain of neighbor fighting neighbor, of countrymen attacking one another because of politics and ideology. One of the priests who joined us that night had even been imprisoned because of his faith. He will never be allowed to return to his homeland. One might guess that people in that room were praying as much for Syria as for their family members and loved ones who have been lost in similar conflicts and those who continue to be affected by hatred and violence.
In that moment, I was mortified at how much I had worried about the right prayer or song, whether the music was too loud or not loud enough. Pope Francis asked, in his message at the vigil in Rome on Saturday, “Is it possible to change direction? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace? ” Now tonight, listening to President Obama announce that he was asking Congress to delay a vote on intervention in Syria to allow time to pursue a “diplomatic path”, I am certain that the prayers of those faithful–united with those around the world–has helped change direction.
The delay is one small step and it doesn’t solve the political complexities or rescue the vulnerable, but it does represent a change in direction. May that possibility be sustained. May peace continue to be pursued. May our faith in the powerful, transforming nature of prayer be renewed.