Francis the peacemaker

by Thomas Reese

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Much attention has been given to the pope's concern for the poor, which was reflected in his choice of Francis as his papal name. But as Pope Francis explained to journalists three days after his election, he also chose the name Francis because St. Francis of Assisi is "the man of peace. ... He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace."

What kind of peacemaker will Pope Francis be?

First, we must acknowledge that Pope Francis comes to the international stage with no training and little experience. He was educated as a chemist before entering the seminary, where his training was heavy on literature, philosophy and theology.

But to think of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as a hick totally ignorant of the world outside Argentina would be a mistake. As a Jesuit, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and especially as a cardinal, he traveled to international meetings where he met people of different cultures and political circumstances. He listened and learned. Living and working in Argentina under Juan Perón, a military dictatorship, the Guerra de las Malvinas (aka the Falkland War), and Argentina's transition to democracy was also an education in itself.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio frequently spoke about capitalism and globalization, but not issues of war and peace. Although Rabbi Abraham Skorka wrote at length about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the book he and Bergoglio wrote, On Heaven and Earth, Bergoglio stuck to generalities. "War must never be the path to resolution" of conflicts, he said. He encouraged putting oneself in another's place to see things from their perspective. Rather than seeking agreement on everything, he proposed "that we walk together in a reconciled diversity."

Yet now that he is pope, Pope Francis is thrust on the international stage. He has already met with presidents and prime ministers. He will meet with President Barack Obama on March 27 and will make a trip to the Middle East in May.

As a novice diplomat, Pope Francis has so far made all the right moves. To help him on international issues, he appointed an experienced Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, as secretary of state. The Vatican secretary of state, who is more like a prime minister than a foreign minister, is the pope's closest collaborator in dealing with governments. He and the pope are assisted by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican foreign minister, who heads a foreign office and a trained diplomatic corps in nunciatures or embassies in almost every country in the world.

While other parts of the Vatican Curia have routinely come under criticism, the Vatican foreign service is judged by other diplomats to be highly competent in its relations with states. (Its role in the selection of bishops is separate question).

New to the field of international relations, Pope Francis can rely heavily on these diplomats for prudent and expert advice. He can also stick to long-established policies of the Holy See on international issues. During the 20th century, for example, it was a strong supporter of the League of Nations, the United Nations, and other multinational efforts for peace.

How has this worked out in his first 10 months in office?

One of Francis' first international initiatives was his opposition to U.S. military intervention in Syria. This should not have surprised anyone because both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq. But Francis added his own special flair to his opposition by calling in September for a day of prayer and fasting for peace. Under pressure from home and abroad, Obama backed away from direct military intervention.

The pope's concern reaches out to countries around the world where there is conflict and large numbers of refugees. He has spoken out for reconciliation and peace in Mali, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Iraq, Korea, Ukraine, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the Holy Land.

Evangelii Gaudium

Granted his concern for the poor and his negative view of libertarian capitalism, it is not surprising that the pope sees justice and peace going hand in hand. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis laid out his belief that one of the principal causes of violence is inequality:

  • "Until exclusion and inequality in society and between peoples are reversed, it will be impossible to eliminate violence."
  • "Without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict will find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode."
  • When a society -- whether local, national or global -- is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no political programmes or resources spent on law enforcement or surveillance systems can indefinitely guarantee tranquility."
  • "Today's economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequality proves doubly damaging to the social fabric. Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve."

In short, unless we deal with inequality, Francis believes violence will keep recurring, no matter how much military might we use trying to suppress it.

World Day of Peace message

At the beginning of each year, the pope has two opportunities to lay out his vision for international peace, first in his message for the World Day of Peace (Jan. 1) and then in his talk to the diplomats accredited to the Holy See in Rome.

Many American women groaned when they saw the title of the pope's World Day of Peace message: "Fraternity, the Foundation and Pathway to Peace." For all the expertise the Vatican has on international issues, it is a male-dominated organization with little sensitivity to the things that will set off contemporary women. " 'Fraternity' is not only noninclusive, it underscores 'the old boys club,' " says Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, associate professor of theology at Boston College. "This is not trivial."

But once we get beyond the word "fraternity," we see the document's emphasis on the need for "fellowship with others" that "enables us to see them not as enemies or rivals, but as brothers and sisters to be accepted and embraced." This is the foundation for peace and a prerequisite for fighting poverty. On the other hand, a globalization of indifference "makes us slowly inured to the suffering of others and closed in on ourselves."

He appeals to those "who sow violence and death by force of arms" to see the other not as an enemy to be beaten but as a brother or sister. "Nevertheless, as long as so great a quantity of arms are in circulation as at present, new pretexts can always be found for initiating hostilities," he writes. "For this reason, I make my own the appeal of my predecessors for the non-proliferation of arms and for disarmament of all parties, beginning with nuclear and chemical weapons disarmament."

But international agreements and laws, while necessary and desirable, are not sufficient to bring peace. "A conversion of hearts is needed which would permit everyone to recognize in the other a brother or sister to care for, and to work together with, in building a fulfilling life for all." Centuries-long antagonisms based on tribal and religious differences will not disappear because of a treaty or aid program. Conversion of hearts is essential. This requires dialogue aimed at mutual understanding and respect.

Talk to diplomats

Finally, in his Jan. 13 address to diplomats in Rome, he decried "the scenes of destruction and death which we have witnessed in the past year ... How much pain and desperation are caused by self-centeredness which gradually takes the form of envy, selfishness, competition and the thirst for power and money!"

In a sweeping review of trouble spots in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, he noted:

  • "Ongoing political problems in Lebanon, where a climate of renewed cooperation between the different components of civil society and the political powers is essential for avoiding the further hostilities which would undermine the stability of the country."
  • "Egypt, with its need to regain social harmony."
  • "Iraq, which struggles to attain the peace and stability for which it hopes."
  • "The exodus of Christians from the Middle East and North Africa."
  • Nigeria, where "violence persists, and much innocent blood continues to be spilt."
  • "The Central African Republic, where much suffering has been caused as a result of the country's tensions, which have frequently led to devastation and death."
  • Refugees "from famine, violence and oppression, particularly in the Horn of Africa and in the Great Lakes Region."
  • The Korean peninsula, on which "I wish to implore from God the gift of reconciliation."
  • Asia, "where growing attitudes of prejudice, for allegedly religious reasons, are tending to deprive Christians of their liberties and to jeopardize civil coexistence."

Despite this, he believes that "the final, definitive word belongs to the Prince of Peace, who changes 'swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks' (cf. Is 2:4), transforming selfishness into self-giving and revenge into forgiveness."

Francis sees a robust role for the international community in building peace. He endorsed the Geneva II conference on Syria and negotiations between Iran and six world powers -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- on the nuclear issue. He called for respect for humanitarian law. "It is unacceptable that unarmed civilians, especially children, become targets," he said. "I also encourage all parties to promote and ensure in every way possible the provision of urgently-needed aid" to refugees and at-risk populations.

He sees threats to peace in many parts of the world, but "everywhere, the way to resolve open questions must be that of diplomacy and dialogue." Quoting Pope Benedict XV from 100 years ago during World War I, Francis urged leaders to make "the moral force of law" prevail over the "material force of arms" in order to end "needless carnage."

What is needed, he said, is courage "to go beyond the surface of the conflict" and to consider others in their deepest dignity so unity will prevail over conflict and it will be "possible to build communion amid disagreement."

Looking back to the enthusiasm of World Youth Day in Brazil, Francis saw hope in the young. What is needed, he said, "is a shared commitment to favoring a culture of encounter, for only those able to reach out to others are capable of bearing fruit, creating bonds of communion, radiating joy and being peacemakers."

"Christians are called to give witness to God's love and mercy," he said. "We must never cease to do good, even when it is difficult and demanding, and when we endure acts of intolerance if not genuine persecution." He promised that the "Catholic Church will continue to assure her presence and cooperation, working generously to help people in every possible way and, above all, to rebuild a climate of reconciliation and of peace among all groups in society."

"How many divisions does the pope have?" asked a cynical Josef Stalin. The pope cannot use the Swiss Guard to enforce his foreign policy goals. Nor does he have other instruments of foreign policy: foreign aid, trade and investments. But he does have a bully pulpit and a vision for peace and reconciliation. If the world is willing to listen, progress can be made on the difficult project of building peace.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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