How remarkable that in our secular age the ‘person of the year’ is Pope Francis. Rarely in history has a leader of the Church enjoyed such broad popular support, or offered so much hope and inspiration. And not just to Catholics.
In the traditional Vatican Christmas prayer this week, Pope Francis departed from his prepared script to appeal to atheists and people of other faiths. “I invite even nonbelievers to desire peace,” he said. He called for all people of conscience to unite in the mission of building peace.
Pope Francis made a similar appeal earlier this year in his homily before a huge crowd at the Vatican Prayer Vigil for Peace in September. As he did this week the Pope offered his message of peace not just for Christians but also for “our brothers and sisters of other religions, and every man and woman of good will.” He called upon all people to cry out forcefully against violence and war. “Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart … and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation.” Francis also repeated the famous words of Pope Paul VI: “War … is always a defeat for humanity.” He reminded us that peace is not separate from the demands of justice but is rooted in personal sacrifice, clemency, mercy and love.
In appealing for peace and reaching out beyond the Church, Pope Francis continues the tradition of Pope John XXIII, whose famous encyclopedia, Pacem in Terris, was published 50 years ago. In that historic document Pope John expressed a new spirit of universality, directing his message not just to Catholics but all people of good will. Pope John defined peace as an ordered society based on moral principles and rooted in human rights, including the right to “a worthy standard of living.”
Pope John described peacemaking as “an imperative of duty; it is a requirement of love.” We are called to be “magnanimous” in serving as a “spark of light,” he declared, to be a “vivifying leaven” to help bring about the beloved community of peace based on the love of God.
Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of Pope John in upholding an important but often ignored teaching of Christianity. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of faith.
It is more than that, though, as Pope Francis reminds us. It is a mission to which all people are called, believers and non-believers alike. It is a message not just for Christmas but for all seasons, an appeal to overcome hatred with love and work for a more just and peaceful future.