In the two millennia since the founding of the Roman Catholic Church, communication from popes has traditionally been in formal language through formal means. Those days are over. Nothing illustrates that more clearly than what has been coming out in recent days from the @Pontifex Twitter feed in reaction to the escalating violence in Syria.
Sept. 1: “Let us pray for peace: peace in the world and in each of our hearts.”
Sept. 2: “War never again! Never again war!”; “We want a peaceful world; we want to be men and women of peace”; “How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake.”
Sept. 3: “By his coming among us, Jesus transforms our lives. In him we see that God is love, he is fidelity he is life who gives himself”; “We want in our society, torn apart by divisions and conflict, that peace break out!”; “With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons.”
In centuries past, the Church became involved in armed conflicts, whether directly (thought it has never had anything like a formidable army) or, more often, indirectly through supporting (or sometimes, opposing) the aims of Catholic monarchs.
In modern times, the pope’s authority is moral or theological, not governmental, except within the sovereign territory of the Vatican City State. Since 1970, the only military force there is the Swiss Guards, tasked solely with protecting the pontiff.
But as the spiritual leader of over a billion baptized Catholics worldwide, scattered across every continent, the pope must weigh in on issues that strongly affect the faithful. Also, as a leader of the largest Christian denomination, he often speaks out on world events.
Over the last couple of decades, the Holy See and the White House have not seen eye-to-eye on how to deal with Middle East unrest.
The Church is not universally against armed conflict–the reason why it developed its “just war” theory–but in general, Catholic doctrine favors peaceful over violent solutions to problems.
When President Bush visited the Vatican in June, 2004, the then-pope’s address to him included this reminder of that plea: “You are very familiar with the unequivocal position of the Holy See in this regard, expressed in numerous documents, through direct and indirect contacts, and in the many diplomatic efforts which have been made since you visited me, first at Castelgandolfo on 23 July 2001, and again in this Apostolic Palace on 28 May 2002.”
During his time in the Chair of Peter, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI supported John Paul II’s position and made frequent calls for peace.
In his 2007 Easter message, Benedict said, “Nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees.”
He also expressed support for the beleaguered and oppressed Iraqi Christians, saying in a 2008 address to Vatican diplomats, “Reconciliation is urgently needed… Terrorist attacks, threats of violence continue especially against the Christian community.”
Since being elected pontiff in March, Pope Francis has had a full plate regarding violence in the Middle East, especially with ancient Christian communities throughout the area being targeted for attacks ranging from burning churches to singling out Christians for torture and murder.
At the beginning of his Installation Mass, Francis prayed at the tomb of St. Peter, his predecessor as Bishop of Rome (and pope). With him in the crypt under the main altar at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican was, from Iraq, His Beatitude Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon; along with the leaders of several other Eastern Rite Catholic Churches (the bulk of the Church is of the Latin Rite).
The Gospel at the Mass was chanted in Greek, the common language of the early Catholic Church in most of the Mediterranean region before the Western Church changed universally to Latin, and is still an important language to many Eastern Rite Catholic Churches (who are in full communion with Rome, but whose liturgy resembles that of Orthodox churches).
Many of these ancient communities, along with others just as venerable such as the Coptic Orthodox of Egypt, have come under fierce attack, with news of their deaths too often landing under the radar of the mainstream news media.
“I will ensure my prayers for all the victims and their families,” he said, “the injured and all those that are suffering. Let us pray together for peace, dialogue and reconciliation in that dear nation and throughout the world.”
He then sought the intercession of the Virgin Mary with her Son, saying, “Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us. Let’s all say it: Mary, Queen of Peace, pray for us.”
The choice of the Angelus and this particular date–the Solemnity of the Assumption, marking when Catholics believe Mary was elevated, body and soul, into heaven–is significant.
While Islam does not acknowledge the Divine Sonship of Jesus, he does have a place of honor in the Koran, as does his mother. Some of the information about her in Islamic tradition is even more detailed than that in the Christian Gospels. Muslim scholars have affirmed the unique purity and divine predestination of Mary, and she–as Maryam–is the only woman mentioned in the Koran by name. The 19th chapter of the Koran is also named for her.
Modern Muslims also honor Mary, with many undertaking pilgrimages to Marian shrines, such as Fatima. So she provides a common point of reference and respect for both Christians (especially Catholics and Orthodox) and Muslims.
Perhaps with that in mind, Pope Francis chose another occasion of praying the Angelus before a gathering of the faithful and the curious in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Sept. 1, to announce a special prayer vigil for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and around the world.
Among his remarks (click here for the full text)–which departed from the usual theological content to focus on the events in Syria, including reports of children killed by chemical weapons, Pope Francis said:
I think of the many children who will not see the light of he future! With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons; I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable! Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war; violence begets violence.
The vigil will feature fasting; a recital of the rosary (a traditional Marian devotion expanded by John Paul II to include meditation on events in Christ’s life); Eucharistic adoration (time in prayer before a consecrated Host, which Catholics believe is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, under the outer form of bread); a papal blessing and remarks from the pontiff.
The vigil takes place on Saturday, Sept. 7, from 7 PM to 11 PM local time (1-6 PM Eastern; 10 AM-1 PM Pacific). While it is not a canonical requirement for Catholics to participate, the vigil does have the support of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, which has “encouraged” the faithful in America to join in.
There has also been a response from Syria. According to the Fides news agency, Ahmad Badreddin Hassou, the Grand Mufti of Syria and spiritual leader of Sunni Islam in that country, “expressed the desire to be present in St. Peter’s for the prayer vigil for peace,” and sent a message to that effect to the Apostolic Nuncio (the pope’s representative) in Damascus.
The article says that logistics will likely prevent his coming to Rome, but the Grand Mufti has instructed his community in Damascus to “welcome the appeal to pray for peace in Syria extended by the Pope to all religions.”
There is also historical precedent for Pope Francis’s outreach to the Middle East in general and the Muslim population in particular. His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, received permission in 1219 to go speak with Sultan al-Kamil in Egypt. While the exact content of their conversations was not recorded, it is known that Francis and his companion, Brother Illuminato, stayed for some time and departed in peace.