Archbishop Charles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio
Homily for the Mass for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 2013,
Church of St. Thérèse, Mount Merrion, Co Dublin
Your Grace Archbishop Martin, Your Excellency President Higgins, esteemed members of the Diplomatic community, government officials, brother priests and Bishops, dear friends in Christ.
“Each new year brings the expectation of a better world” – it is with these words that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI begins his Message for the World Day of Peace, which is traditionally celebrated on January 1 of each year. And so it is that we ourselves begin this New Year 2013 with the expectation and the earnest hope of a better world. This hope is deeply rooted in our consciousness as human beings. We look at our world with its troubles and tragedies and we deeply desire that things will improve. It is also true, of course, that at times we fail to recognize the signs of hope that are already present around us. Recently, the British magazine, The Spectator sought to make that point in their Christmas edition, which in a deliberately provocative way informed its readers this year that our present time is the greatest period in human history: “Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.” Now, there is certainly a good deal of truth in The Spectator’s claims, but there is a bigger question here – and that is the question of how we understand progress itself.
As Christians we, of course, believe in a kind of progress. The mystery of Christmas which we celebrate in these days should be seen as the greatest progress imaginable. After centuries, indeed of millennia of waiting, finally “When the appointed time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born subject to the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as children” (Gal 4:4). Yes, God became man to save us from our sins and to open the possibility of eternal life to those who believe in him and follow him. The ages that came before the birth of the Lord were the preparation for the moment of grace that we celebrate in this holy season.
And in Christian history too, the Church sees a kind of progress. The Second Vatican Council, which took place some 50 years ago, taught that the Church’s understanding of the truth of God’s revelation deepens over time “with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down…. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her” (Dei Verbum, 8).
But progress is by no means guaranteed. And while the Church does believe that as the ages go along, Christian truth is better and more deeply understood, that fact does not automatically translate into a belief that human society as such always makes progress. The widespread contemporary belief in progress is based largely on the undeniable truth of technological progress. There can be no doubt, as The Spectator emphasizes, that in areas like communications or engineering or medicine, human knowledge has advanced and continues to advance, with great benefit for mankind. But technological or scientific progress is not completely identical with human progress. I was at home in America recently at the time of the horrific massacre in the school in Newtown, Connecticut. The hearts of human beings all over the world were appalled by that awful and senseless act of mass murder. In a certain way, that atrocity highlighted the difference between technological progress and human progress. The technical capacity to do what the killer did has only been possible for a relatively short time in human history; only with certain advanced weapons can one person take the lives of so many innocent victims so easily. And yet obviously none of us would ever think that this represents the kind of progress we desire. It makes us ask the deeper questions about progress. Sure – there is technological progress, but are people today better human beings than they were a hundred years ago? Is society as a whole more humane? Statistics and social studies might not indicate that they are. Crime and imprisonment have increased dramatically in virtually all Western countries over the last forty years. Statistics on marriage and family life are not encouraging. It is clear that technological and scientific progress is not necessarily accompanied by human or social progress.
Human progress happens when we truly acknowledge the intrinsic value of every human being and also recognize that in the human heart there is the awareness of a natural moral law, which is present in a person as a fundamental sense of what is right and wrong, even before a person has any faith in God or any religious instruction or training. This is what the Holy Father means when he writes in his message that, “Our gaze needs to go deeper, beneath superficial appearances and phenomena, to discern a positive reality which exists in human hearts, since every man and woman has been created in the image of God and is called to grow and contribute to the building of a new world”. This fundamental moral sense makes us all understand that societies do not progress when fundamental rights are denied to human beings or when the natural moral law is contradicted by man-made laws.
The Holy Father’s Message for the World Day of Peace makes reference to a number of critical issues in the world today. He asks whether the predominant model of economics has in fact benefited the common good; he reflects on the current food crisis. Pope Benedict also gives special attention to the question of the right to life of a baby in the womb of his or her mother. The World Day of Peace is not simply about preventing war between nations. It is also about calling attention to the need for a compassionate and truly peaceful society, in which everyone’s right to life is respected. The Holy Father is quite clear about this in his message. He writes: “Those who insufficiently value human life and, in consequence, support among other things the liberalization of abortion, perhaps do not realize that in this way they are proposing the pursuit of a false peace. The flight from responsibility, which degrades human persons, and even more so the killing of a defenceless and innocent being, will never be able to produce happiness or peace. Indeed how could one claim to bring about peace, the integral development of peoples or even the protection of the environment without defending the life of those who are weakest, beginning with the unborn. Every offence against life, especially at its beginning, inevitably causes irreparable damage to development, peace and the environment”. And the Holy Father continues by stating that neither is it just to introduce “into legislation false rights or freedoms which, on the basis of a reductive and relativistic view of human beings and the clever use of ambiguous expressions aimed at promoting a supposed right to abortion and euthanasia, pose a threat to the fundamental right to life”.
The Bishops of Ireland have spoken with courage and clarity about the present moment in Ireland, and have emphasized how in Ireland both a mother and her unborn baby are equally valued and cherished. As Archbishop Martin has stated so well, “there are no second class human lives, no human life whose right to life deserves lesser respect or lesser protection”. Cardinal Brady has said of the present time that it “will prove to be a defining moment regarding Ireland’s attitude to respect and care for human life. Public representatives will be asked to decide whether a caring and compassionate society is defined by providing the best possible care and protection to a woman struggling to cope with an unwanted pregnancy or, by the deliberate destruction of another human life. It is the position of the Catholic Church that both lives are equally sacred… [both] have an equal right to life”. The Cardinal said also that he hopes “that everyone who believes that the right to life is fundamental will make their voice heard in a reasonable, but forthright, way to their representatives, reminding them that the right to life is conferred on human beings not by the powerful ones of this world but by the Creator, and that therefore no government has the right to remove that right from an innocent person. There is no more important value than upholding the right to life in all circumstances”.
Dear friends in Christ, “Each new year brings the expectation of a better world”. This New Year 2013 is an incredibly important one for the sanctity of human life in Ireland and in other nations as well. People of conscience from all religions and from no religion need to work vigorously and courageously to protect and nurture human life from conception to natural death. This is the path to peace and those who pursue it are the true peacemakers. We must ask ourselves about what constitutes a better world. Technological and economic progress are indeed good, but the ultimate question is how we as human beings treat each other and especially how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us. In our Liturgy today, we contemplate the scene of Bethlehem, with Mary, the Mother of God and her spouse Joseph, caring for the infant Jesus in the poverty of the stable. This vulnerable Child is God-made-man. It is He who brings the world a peace that the world itself does not completely understand. Let us kneel in our hearts and minds before the stable in Bethlehem and ask the Prince of Peace for the grace and indeed the courage to be peace-makers ourselves in our own critical time.