Pope Francis’ eleventh year marred by sorrow over wars

By Salvatore Cernuzio, 14 March 2024


Pope Francis’ last twelve months have been marked by over 150 appeals for “martyred” Ukraine and more than 60 for a ceasefire in the Middle East, accompanied by invitations to the leaders of nations for “creative efforts” towards a just and lasting peace, all driven by the anguish of witnessing humanity’s “dark hour.”

“I suffer to see the dead, the boys who don’t come back. It’s hard…”

Exactly a year ago, the Pope spoke those words. On the day he celebrated the tenth anniversary of his pontificate, he shared his pain, felt by thousands of mothers around the world.

He was speaking in a podcast – his first – produced by Vatican News. His thoughts were particularly directed to the young people who died in the war of aggression in Ukraine, which he always and immediately described as “martyred” or “tormented”.

This is not a tired slogan, as some have said, but a constant reminder of the torment of the Ukrainian people. The pain that Pope Francis has made public has not diminished in these twelve months of the eleventh year of his pontificate, but has rather intensified in the face of the prospects of a widening of the conflict in Eastern Europe, with the possible deployment of European troops and the threat of a nuclear response.

It has deepened even further since October with the eruption of intense suffering in the Holy Land, following the terrorist attack by Hamas and the Israeli military response that has resulted in about 31,000 deaths in five months. Another of those “pieces” that, as Pope Francis says, make up the third ongoing global conflict.

Silent Prayer, Public Pain

Facing this pain, Pope Francis, head of the Universal Church and at 87 among the oldest Pontiffs in history, prays in the silence of his room, where he keeps icons, crosses, and other objects representative of the wounded nations they come from.

He gives voice to this pain in every public statement. Over 130 appeals in the past year for Ukraine, more than 60 for the Middle East and the population of Gaza.

There has not been an Angelus, Regina Caeli, or General Audience in which the Pope has failed to reference the war, reiterating his closeness to the affected populations and praying for peace and the courage to put an end to the “madness” of war.

Peace for Martyred Ukraine

Sometimes these have been vigorous appeals – even when his voice, due to bronchitis or the flu, did not allow it – and sometimes brief asides, fleeting memoranda, or alarm bells to prevent the onset of habit and cynicism, which sees even the drama of a missile attack on schools and homes downgraded to “breaking news”.

The hope for a just and lasting peace has always been and remains the only backdrop to the Pope’s words throughout this eleventh year of his pontificate.

It is especially important given attempts to instrumentalise the Pope’s words, and accusations of “equi-closeness” raised against him – as Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, has pointed out, this latter has always been “the style” of the Holy See.

Appeal to the European Union

The Pope does not give up seeking peace, hoping for peace, and praying for it.

Those were Pope Francis’ words to the refugee families who arrived in Italy through humanitarian corridors, and who he received in audience on March 18 of last year.

And four days later, at his General Audience, he recalled the Act of Consecration of Russia and Ukraine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary: “Let us not tire of entrusting the cause of peace to the Queen of Peace,” he urged, asking the faithful to renew the Act of Consecration to the Virgin every March 25, “so that She, who is Mother, might guard us all in unity and peace.”

The Pope has always asked that spiritual commitment be matched by “a cohesive” political and diplomatic commitment, starting with the European Union. This is a “very complex” challenge, he said in his address to the COMECE, since EU countries are “involved in multiple alliances, interests, strategies, a series of forces that are difficult to converge into a single project” against the war.

The message of “Pacem in Terris

These words were echoed in his Easter Urbi et Orbi blessing, accompanied by the plea that God might open the hearts of the entire international community to work to end “all conflicts that bleed the world.”

Pope Francis also addressed the leaders of nations on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, asking them to be inspired in projects and decisions by this encyclical, which was written in the midst of the tensions of the Cold War.

This encyclical is startlingly relevant today, as evidenced by the following passage: “The relations between political communities, like those between individual human beings, must be regulated not by resorting to the force of arms, but in the light of reason, that is, in truth, justice, and active solidarity.”

Creative Efforts for Peace

“Where are the creative efforts for peace?” the Pope asked in Hungary, which has become a destination for thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

In the world we live in, however, the passion for community politics and multilateralism seems like a beautiful memory of the past: it seems like we are witnessing the sad decline of the collective dream of peace, while the soloists of war make their way.

We heard, however, not only denunciations, but also visions from the Pope. On the return flight from Budapest, he told journalists: “I believe that peace is always made by opening channels; one can never make peace by closing them. I invite everyone to open relationships, channels of friendship. This is not easy.”

“The road to peace concerns everyone. I am willing, I am willing to do whatever needs to be done,” added the Pontiff, hinting at a mission that would later be revealed as that of Cardinal Matteo Maria Zuppi as his envoy to Kyiv, Moscow, Washington, and Beijing.

A world without hate and without weapons

Zuppi’s mission developed as it went along, fulfilling the Pope’s desire for “creativity”.

“In the ocean of history, we are sailing in a stormy moment and the lack of brave paths of peace is deeply felt. Looking with heartfelt affection at Europe, in the spirit of dialogue that characterizes it, one would be tempted to ask: where are you sailing, if not offering paths of peace, creative ways to end the war in Ukraine and the many conflicts that bleed the world?”

This was the Pope’s question in his speech to authorities in Lisbon, the first stop on his trip to Portugal for WYD, during which he met a million and a half young people.

These young people, he emphasized in the subsequent Wednesday general audience, “have shown everyone that another world is possible: a world of brothers and sisters, where the flags of all peoples wave together, side by side, without hate, without fear, without closures, without weapons!”

A dark hour

This dream of the Pope’s was put to the test by the events of October 7. His expression was dark and his voice strained when the Pontiff, in the Angelus the day after the Hamas attacks on October 8, deplored the violence “exploding even more fiercely” in Israel.

Speaking from the window of the Apostolic Palace, he stated: “Let the attacks and weapons stop, please, and understand that terrorism and war lead to no solution, but only to the death and suffering of many innocent people. War is a defeat: every war is a defeat!”

Always a defeat

“War is a defeat,” another recurring leitmotif of these last months of the pontificate.

For some, perhaps an expression too naive, but how can one call the mass death of thousands of one’s own citizens, most of whom are innocent civilians, a “victory”?

“A humanitarian catastrophe”: that’s how the Pope described the situation in Gaza, not even ten days into Israel’s armed response.

Let the weapons fall silent! Listen to the cry of peace of the peoples, of individuals, of children! Brothers and sisters, war solves nothing, it only sows death and destruction, increases hatred, and multiplies revenge. War erases the future

Fasting and prayer

At his General Audience of October 18, the Pope announced a day of fasting and prayer on October 27 at St. Peter’s. It was a moment of prayer and penance in “a dark hour of history.”

One hour seemed to last a century and a darkness enveloped thousands of people, taken from their lands, homes, or even their lives.

“No” is the only answer. “Say ‘no’ to war, to every war, to the logic of war itself, a journey without purpose, a defeat without winners, madness without excuses,” the Pope declared in his Christmas Urbi et Orbi.

People, who do not want weapons but bread, are struggling to move forward and ask for peace, do not know how much public money is spent on weapons. Yet they should know! Let it be spoken about, let it be written about, so that the interests and profits that move the strings of wars might be known

The courage to negotiate

This “no” must be accompanied by concrete action.

This is what Pope Francis suggested in his speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See: “A conflict that is increasingly festering cannot be allowed to continue to the detriment of millions of people, but it is necessary to put an end to the tragedy at hand through negotiation, respecting international law.”

With thanks to Vatican News and Salvatore Cernuzio, where this article originally appeared.


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