Recently I had the privilege of attending the Vatican-sponsored symposium, “Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament.” It was a transformative and inspiring experience that included an audience with Pope Francis. The Vatican invited Notre Dame’s Office of the President and Kroc Institute to collaborate in the event, and five faculty members and a dozen current and recent students made the trip to Rome. Among the more than 300 participants were Nobel laureates, ambassadors and governmental representatives, Church leaders, civil society leaders and nuclear experts from dozens of countries.
The highlight of the event was the audience with the Holy Father, which took place in the Vatican’s magnificent Clementine Palace. The Pope delivered an important address that broke new ground in strengthening the Church’s commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Noting the grave risk these weapons pose to humankind, the pontiff declared “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.” This was the first time a pope rejected the very possession of nuclear weapons.
After the address, all of us at the conference were invited to greet the Pope. As I stood in line inching closer to the Holy Father my knees were shaking. I kept thinking of my long departed mom, who was so devout in the faith, and how proud she would be of her sometimes wayward son finding his way to the Vatican. I took deep breaths to compose myself and tried to focus on the moment as I stood now in front of the Holy Father. He reached out and smiled warmly, and I stepped forth and clasped his hand. I can’t remember what I said to him. Time seemed to stand still and for a moment I had no idea where I was. Then I turned and walked slowly back to my seat, floating on air, overwhelmed with a deep feeling of gratitude and joy, aglow with the spirit of this most blessed of popes. I noticed similar deep smiles of wonderment on the faces of many conference participants as they returned to their seats.
The symposium was historic not only in expressing the Church’s condemnation of nuclear weapons but in articulating the concept of “integral disarmament,” which can be understood as a companion to the Church’s doctrine of integral human development. Denuclearization is an imperative not only for humanitarian reasons to save innocent lives, but to redirect public resources toward programs that address the needs of the poor and enhance human flourishing. As with integral human development, the goal of integral disarmament is to protect life in all its dimensions and to support inclusive approaches to economic and social opportunity. Integral disarmament also encompasses Pope Francis’s concern for protecting the environment and respecting God’s creation, as expressed in Laudato si’. All of this is woven into a capacious conception of disarmament that seeks not only to prevent nuclear holocaust but refocus public priorities toward serving human and ecological needs.
Attending the historic symposium and greeting the pope was a privilege, but with that honor comes the responsibility to heed the pontiff’s words and redouble our efforts for peace and integral disarmament.