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As war rages, talk of peace


With a torrent of messages, summits and symbolic gestures, Pope John Paul II in December turned up the volume on his calls for peace. The sense of urgency came even as he, for the first time since Sept. 11, affirmed in his own name a principle often invoked by papal aides when asked about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan: the right of a state to defend itself against terrorism.

The pope demanded “courageous and resolute” efforts to overcome injustices that fuel violence, especially the long-running Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Papal pleas for peace were heard in several venues, including a Dec. 7 Christmas concert, the traditional Dec. 8 visit to a statue of the Virgin Mary in the Piazza di Spagna to mark the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and a message for the World Day of Peace, released Dec. 11.

In the message, the pope argued that peace can only be established on the twin pillars of justice and forgiveness, and expressed hope for “a far-reaching resurgence of the human spirit in individual hearts and in relations between the peoples of the world.”

John Paul also convened in Rome an impromptu summit of Catholic leaders from Jerusalem and environs on Dec. 13, to express “spiritual closeness with the populations of the Holy Land” and to “share the drama of their daily life, too often tested by acts of violence and discrimination.”

A handful of prelates from around the world joined the summit, including Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

Finally, the pope was to observe a day of fast on Friday, Dec. 14, the final day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. He called on Catholics and others to join him in prayer and fasting, in solidarity with the world’s Muslims.

In his World Peace Day message, the pope used some of his strongest language to date about terrorism, saying it is “built on contempt for human life” and is thus a “crime against humanity.” He demanded that religious leaders publicly repudiate terrorism, language that aides acknowledged poses a challenge to Muslim clerics to clearly disassociate themselves from terrorist groups.

The pope added, however, that defense against terrorism “must be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits in the choice of ends and means.”

The message was presented at a Dec. 11 news conference. Try as reporters might, Vatican officials would not be drawn into making critical statements about the U.S.-led Afghan campaign.

Bishop Giampaolo Crespaldi, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, defended the Western response.

“There was a regime [in Afghanistan] that gave cover and legitimacy to these terrorists,” Crespaldi said. “There is no doubt that this action was not directed against the people but against those responsible. Thus it seems to me an exercise of the right of legitimate self-defense.”

The papal message asserts that “criminal culpability is always personal and cannot be extended to the nation, ethnic group or religion to which the terrorists may belong.”

Asked by NCR how that principle might apply if the United States were to launch strikes against Iraq, Sudan or Somalia, other nations alleged to harbor terrorists, an official said the Vatican could not offer a simple “yes or no” to military action.

Instead, the pope is asking world leaders to consider these choices “through the eyes of those who have to suffer, the afflicted populations,” said Fr. Frank J. Dewane, an American who serves as undersecretary at the Council for Peace and Justice.

Meanwhile, American diplomats in Rome continued efforts to invoke Vatican support for the anti-terrorism campaign, sponsoring a Mass on Dec. 11 in the Vatican’s Chapel of St. Anne to mark the three-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks in the United States.

The Mass, celebrated by American Cardinal Edmund Szoka, governor of Vatican City, began precisely at 2:46 p.m. Rome time, marking the moment when the first airliner slammed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. The congregation sang “The Star Spangled Banner” to open the Mass and “God Bless America” at the close.

In his homily, Szoka said the teaching of the Catholic church is that governments “have not only a right but a duty to protect citizens against unjust aggressors.”

Nevertheless, Szoka said, what’s important for Christians is “what’s in our own hearts.” He asserted that “Jesus brought an end to violence as a solution.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2001