The Catholic Church observed the first ever World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, 1968, and for me, it’s a reminder of the good that the church can do. It’s been a rough couple of decades for the Roman Catholic Church, well-founded, well-documented, and much pored over in my own mind. But this designated day always brings me back to the reasons why I still see good in the church.
In a not-so-novel concept, the church thought all those years ago that in order to achieve peace, we ought to have some kind of understanding and tolerance of each other … between one another, between governments, between countries, between religions. Basically, you start with peace within yourself, and from that springs a broader peace with sort of a ripple effect. This was 1968, after all, when the U.S. itself was torn apart from assassinations and deep, deep racial inequality as well as dealing with the war in Vietnam.
Even though I’ve seen at least a half-dozen documentaries about him, I recently watched another one about Robert Kennedy. Every single time, by the end of the program, I wish so much that he would’ve lived. He came from a family rooted very deeply in Catholicism, especially his mother. And while there are arguments to be made that the family was full of contradictions, Bobby has always come across as a very moral person to me. By the time he had launched his own campaign to run for president, he had had an epiphany around poverty and around race and around inequality in all its forms. He came from a privileged white background, so empathizing with the civil rights movement wasn’t exactly organic with him. But he went out into the country and saw racism and poverty firsthand, and it marked him, made him a compassionate politician in a way no one else had — or has — been. That’s why I wish so much he would’ve lived. I have to think that the world would be different if he had.
The thing is that there are aspects within the Catholic Church that are very much entrenched in peace. There are types of meditation, prayer, and practices that lend themselves to inner quiet and contemplation. There is Pax Christi, an international organization founded in 1945 when a small group in France met to pray for peace. They realized that French and German Catholics had killed each other by the millions in the 20th century, even though they professed the same faith. Pax Christi made its way to the U.S. in 1972, organized by a handful of mostly lay Catholics that included a couple of journalists I admire — Eileen Egan and Dorothy Day. This was a group familiar with the antiwar, farmworkers, and civil rights movements. Since then they’ve looked at their own organization, finding ways to bring a multicultural, antiracist approach to their own work. The premise behind Pax Christi, no matter what country the members are from, is “to work for peace for all humankind, always witnessing to the peace of Christ.” Through prayer, education, and action, members support nuclear disarmament, they take a look at the way U.S. government funds are spent, and work to bring the effects of war — whether it’s in Ukraine, Syria, Palestine, Ethiopia, or any number of other countries — to light.
I’m not really much of a papal person. I did watch Francis’ election coverage back in 2013, but it’s rare that I pay attention to what’s happening in Rome. This year, I read Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Peace, and I was struck by how much it delved into the post-COVID world, how the pandemic impacted people around the world and how we’re still struggling to come through the other side. I really like this quote taken from Francis’ message: “Certainly, after directly experiencing the fragility of our own lives and the world around us, we can say that the greatest lesson we learned from COVID-19 was the realization that we all need one another. That our greatest and yet most fragile treasure is our shared humanity as brothers and sisters, children of God. And that none of us can be saved alone.”
He talked about the isolation and loneliness that came with the pandemic, how the war in Ukraine affects more than the people living there, and that there are global economic implications that are felt around the world — another reminder that we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and think only about what happens in our little portion of the world.
It’s hard to think about some of these things, especially when we’re struggling ourselves with hardship. Sometimes, though, when we look at the broader picture, it helps us to see that we can indeed find ways to work through our own challenges. It puts our own suffering in perspective when we think about the suffering of others. My hope for this year is that I spend less time looking internally and spend more time reaching out externally to those around me. I’m not sure what fruit it will yield, but it’s about time I tried it.