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Pope Paul VI and the enduring quest for peace in the world

 Denis Fitzgerald[1]

Jan 2016

Pope Paul VI assumed his role in 1963, just months after the ailing Pope John XXIII issued his great encyclical Peace on Earth (Pacem in Terris, as it is widely known.)  Pacem in Terris spoke to a world caught in a cold war that had led to the Cuban missile crisis of  November 1962; and it spoke to a Church engaged in the Second Vatican Council. Peace was a priority message that the Church took to the world.

In October 1965, while the Bishops of the Vatican Council were finalising their ground-breaking document on the Church in the Modern World, Pope Paul flew to New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations.  The culmination of his address was a call for peace: 

never again one against the other, never, never again!....never again war, never again war!  It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations of all mankind!’

Peace, the Pontiff noted, is not just a political arrangement, with a balance of power and of interests, but is built on ideas, and on the works of peace:  disarmament, cooperation between States, the progress of human society, deep respect for the basic rights and duties of mankind.  Above all, the edifice of peace must rest on personal conversion – a new way of thinking about humankind and human society, and about ‘the pathways of history and the destinies of the world.’

Building a peaceful world is a priority for all time, Pope Paul set about establishing and infrastructure and a regular focus on building peace, much as Pope Francis has more recently done in relation to ecology.

In 1976, he established the Vatican Commission for Justice & Peace, and the following year his Populorum Progressio declared that development is the new name for peace, and called on the world for more concerted action to achieved these inter-locked goals.  Later in 1967, on 8 December, Pope Paul instituted an annual Day of Peace, on 1 January; and issued a Message for the first observance of this day. 

In his inaugural message, for 1 January 1968, Pope Paul saw this day as a commemoration of a hope, and of a promise, that peace may come to ‘dominate the development of events to come.’

Working for peace is an integral part of the Christian message, and Pope Paul spells this out:   the Good News is ‘the Gospel of peace (Eph 4:15), and ‘Through His Sacrifice on the Cross, [Jesus] brought about universal reconciliation, and we, as His followers, are called to be peacemakers (Mt 5. 9)’.  New Year’s Day was already set aside in the liturgical calendar as a solemnity  of Mary, Mother of God, and this was not to change.  Pope Paul, however, connected the two:  he called for the liturgical celebrations to ‘shed their light of goodness, wisdom and hope upon the …gift of Peace.’ 

And, as in his address to the UN, the Pope also spoke to the entire world.   World Peace Day was launched for the world as a whole, as a service to the world, with the intention that it ‘give to the history of the world a more happy, ordered and civilized development.’

Peace, he wrote, must be built on law, justice and equity; it must come from a spirit of coexistence between peoples; and a new outlook on our destiny.  International organisations have an important part to play in this.  False rhetoric is not enough: sincerity, justice and love must guide relations between states, and between citizens. 

Believers in the Gospel have much to contribute to the building of peace.  The call to unity of all humanity, fraternally united in God, is a powerful idea; the Gospel call to have mercy can help rebuild society; and prayer invokes ‘divine forces of spiritual and political renewal’ but also offers each of us an opportunity to examine the roots of rancour and violence that might lie within us. 


For 50 years now the Pope of the day has issued a Message for each World Day of Peace.  It has remained a priority for each of them, not least for Pope Francis, who associated himself so strongly with his namesake of Assisi.  His message for 1 January 2017, his fourth such message, draws on the major documents of his pontificate as it focuses on the role of nonviolence in building peace. 

[1] Denis Fitzgerald is Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria, www.css.org.au

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