Opening Greeting of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good’ (Romans 12:17)
Very Rev. Richard Sheehy, P.P.
Star of the Sea Church. Sandymount, 1 January 2005
We are celebrating this Mass for Peace at a time of unprecedented violence in the world. Daily TV images of violent incidents bring into our homes the ongoing conflict in Iraq, which has claimed the lives of hundreds of US soldiers and thousands of Iraqis, many of them innocent civilians: women and children. The recent conflict in western Sudan has displaced over one and a half million people, leaving them totally dependent on foreign emergency aid. In the past few years we have become familiar with the awful reality of suicide bombings in the Middle East and in Chechnya, something unthinkable ten years ago. The past few months have seen the emergence of an even more grotesque phenomenon: the kidnapping of military personnel and foreign civilians, in both Afghanistan and Iraq, their degrading treatment in front of TV cameras and subsequent beheading. The murder of the aid worker, Margaret Hassan, seems to mark a particular low in terms of human beings’ capacity for inhumanity. We have also seen evidence of inhumane treatment meted out to prisoners at US military prisons, and the shooting dead of apparently unarmed and wounded Iraqi prisoners in a mosque in Falluja. The past year also saw bombings at Madrid and at Beslan, which brought terrible suffering to the peoples of these communities. These different images, with which we have alas become familiar, point to a diminishment of respect for the dignity of the human person, a worrying disregard for life itself. The world at the beginning of the 21st century is characterised by global inequality, insecurity and fear, a tragic symbol of which is the separation fence currently under construction in the land of Jesus’s birth. There is also a real danger of a deepening polarisation of attitudes between east and west, between the largely Arab and Islamic culture of the countries of the middle-east and the mainly Christian culture of the west; and the enduring credibility of the UN as an international arbitrator has come into question.
When Pope Paul VI inaugurated the annual World Day of Peace on 1st January 1968 and asked all people of goodwill throughout the world to observe a day of peace at the beginning of every calendar year, his desire was that it would serve as ‘a hope and a promise that peace would dominate the development of events to come’. He highlighted the need to ‘educate the new generations to reciprocal respect between nations, to brotherhood between peoples’, and he stressed the link between peace and development. Thirty seven years on, when many are tempted to view reality only through the lens of the needs and aspirations of their particular culture, religion, nation, ethnic group or economic system, his words seem strikingly relevant and challenging.
One of the real threats to world peace today is economic inequality and the growing gulf between rich and poor. Everyone wants peace. But often what many of us in the first world really mean is that we want security for our living standards. We don’t want our way of life to be disturbed, even if our comfortable living standards are directly linked to the poverty of others. Ireland is today one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Yet we still feel insecure, and insecurity feeds fear. Instead of welcoming immigrants to our shores for the cultural difference and gifts that they bring, we can feel threatened by their presence, often irrationally so. It is natural to want to protect what we have, but there can be no true peace without justice and equality for all.
A major challenge we face, as human beings, is to expand our concept of ‘brother’ beyond the narrow confines of family, fellow citizen, ethnic kin or co-religionist to include humankind in general, especially with regard to human rights and dignity. The recent enlargement of the European Union already invites us to expand our definition of what it means to be European. For people of faith, the belief that we have a common Creator should inspire us to see every human being as a brother or sister. How we think and speak about those who are culturally or ethnically different to us will affect how we treat them. When difficult political negotiations between rival groups break down, there is a rush to place the blame on the other side. It is too easy to portray the other as ‘evil’, ‘criminal’, ‘fanatic’ or ‘terrorist’. Our use of language can so easily alienate rather than create the conditions for peace.
The last-minute collapse of the recent peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, which would have seen a return to power-sharing government, leaves us with a huge sense of disappointment. Although we are at an impasse, and the ensuing political vacuum could lead to recrimination, resignation and despair, it is important to acknowledge the extraordinary progress the talks had made: on policing, on power-sharing, even on decommissioning. It can be tempting to play the blame-game, but both sides need to acknowledge just how far the other has moved and work again to create the trust that will make it possible to move forward. There is need on all sides to use the language of respect and reconciliation, if we truly want peace, not the language of abuse, humiliation, blame or contempt, which can only harden attitudes. For leaders on both sides, there is the prize of a peaceful future for all the people of this island waiting to be grasped, where there is no need for victor or vanquished but where all are winners.
Pope John Paul, in his New Year message for the World Day of Peace takes as his theme, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good’ (Romans 12:17)
The whole thrust of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans is an exhortation to check one’s natural inclinations, particularly towards greed and domination of others. In situations of conflict or in the face of terrorist attack, the temptation today, particularly for the world’s leading military powers, is to seek the quick fix solution: to resort to revenge attacks, carpet-bombing or the assassination of so-called terrorists. This may be natural justice, but it’s not God’s justice. We are impatient, but God is patient. St. Paul says: ‘Never pay back evil with evil’ (Romans 12:17). Commenting on St. Paul’s text, Pope John Paul underlines a fundamental truth when he says: ‘evil is never defeated by evil; once that road is taken, rather than defeating evil, one will instead be defeated by evil’. Quoting his own words at Drogheda in 1979, the pope says: ‘ Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.’
Jesus’s death on the cross was a refusal to meet violence with violence. It was an act of radical love reconciling humankind with God. Peace cannot be brought about through warfare. The only way to peace is peace. The Gospel can seem unrealistic at times, but then it has never been a guarantee of success or the path of political expediency. It seeks rather to establish a kingdom of justice and peace, based on truth and a vision of God’s love for all humankind, incarnated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The way to such a kingdom requires patience, faith, dialogue and openness to reconciliation with, not humiliation of, ones opponents, which alone can make possible new beginnings and new relationships. The Franciscan peace activist, Richard Rohr says that Christians are called to dedicate our lives to building bridges and paying the price in our bodies for this ministry of reconciliation (Eph. 2: 13-18). He says, ‘A great deal of wisdom comes into the world through people who creatively hold the tension of opposites on difficult and complex issues’.
In that famous blessing in today’s First Reading (Num 6: 22-27), Abraham and his descendants are called not just to receive a blessing but to incarnate blessing – God’s blessing for all humanity. The history of the people of Israel as described in the books of the Torah is the history of their calling, in and through their particular experience of blessing and chosen-ness, to reveal God’s blessing for all the nations. How can we be blessing for others? As we gather in prayer this morning, we are all too conscious of the devastation caused by the recent earthquake throughout south-east Asia. The scale of the tragedy in human terms is simply unimaginable: thousands of people killed, millions displaced, their homes and livelihoods washed away. Tragedies have the capacity to bring out the best in human nature. The swift response of our own government, the churches and aid agencies has been commendable, and I have no doubt that Irish people will respond with their usual generosity and compassion to the various appeals. However, while some 400 million euro in international aid has been pledged to date, it is estimated that the countries affected will require some 10 billion euro to repair the damage. The Irish government could give a prophetic lead to the international community this year by increasing its allocation of emergency aid and by renewing its commitment to realising the UN target of giving 0.7% of GNP towards third world development. For those of us who have been blessed with so much, this is our opportunity to be blessing, to show the face and heart of the compassionate God to those who are suffering. As Pope John Paul puts it in his New Year message, ‘the provision of aid to displaced persons and refugees and the mobilization of international solidarity towards all the needy are nothing other than consistent applications of the principle of world citizenship’.
Sometimes we can seem overwhelmed by the challenges of peacemaking. We would do well to recall that it was in a cave near a small village in a far-flung corner of the Roman empire that a child came into the world, whom we honour today as the Prince of Peace. Ninety years ago this Christmas a remarkable incident took place along various parts of the western front, when British and German soldiers who had been engaged in trench warfare for several months stopped firing and exchanged gifts across no-man’s–land on Christmas Eve. They defied the orders of their commanding officers, because the celebration of the birth of Christ reminded them of a deeper kinship. May Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate at this time, be the inspiration and source of all our work for peace, for building understanding and for justice in the coming year, and may we, like Mary, have the wisdom to ponder these things in our hearts.