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For Pope Francis, nonviolence is the key to peace, and it starts at home

By Denis Fitzgerald[1]

5 Jan 2016

It is fifty years since Pope Paul VI instituted a world Day of Peace, to be marked each New Year’s Day. 

And in many ways, it’s a different world from 1 January 1968.  The cold war has ended; and the conflicts that made headlines then are, for many, a matter of history.  But new challenges to peace have emerged, with wars and conflict in a number of countries in the Middle East and Africa, the number of displaced people in the world displaced by conflict at an all-time high of 65 million, terrorism operating on a global scale, and increased unease at disparities in wealth and power within and between countries. 

Over this half century, successive Popes have issued a statement for 1 January each year, and the Church across the world has amplified this in relation to their own circumstances – various aspects of peace have been a focus of several of the annual Social Justice Statements from the Australian Bishops, and responding to domestic violence was the theme of a statement in 2016 by the Bishops of Victoria.

For Pope Francis, peace has been a constant theme, as it was for his name-sake, St Francis 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. 

He summarises the message as follows:

May charity and nonviolence govern how we treat each other as individuals, within society and in international life…In the most local and ordinary situations and in the international order, may nonviolence become the hallmark of our decisions, our relationships and our actions, and indeed of political life in all its forms.

Jesus offered a radical positive alternative to violence, with his call to love our enemies (Mt 5:44).  He ‘walked the path of nonviolence’, to the very end, and called on his followers to be an instrument of reconciliation.  Loving our enemies, the Pope explains, is not a matter of succumbing to evil, but of responding to evil with good (Rom 12: 17-21) and breaking the chain of injustice. 

Nonviolence is not passive – Mother Theresa was a tireless worker of non-violent responses – and it gets results:  the Pope cites Martin Luther King Jr in the USA, Leyman Gbowee and Liberian women, and, on the sub-continent, Mahatma Ghandi and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. 

These reflections relate to a number of issues that are front of mind for many in Australia. 

The Pope recognises that many religious traditions have compassion and nonviolence as ‘essential elements pointing to the way of life’, and quotes his own earlier words at an inter-religious gathering at Assisi: 

Let us never tire of repeating:  “The name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone is holy. Peace alone is holy, not war!”

But, we might observe, some do call on the name of God to justify extreme violence.  The Pope’s message is that this is not a valid approach:  the idea of God that is being drawn on is not adequate, and cannot be allowed to stand uncontested. 

And nonviolence within families is so important:  ‘dialogue, respect, concern for the good of the other, mercy and forgiveness’ are needed for the resolution of frictions and conflicts that emerge; but they are also needed for the family to be an effective crucible from which ‘the joy of love spills out.’  Thus, as he pleads for ‘disarmament and the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons, Pope Francis pleads ‘with equal urgency for an end to domestic violence and to the abuse of women and children… The politics of nonviolence have to begin in the home and then spread to the entire human family.’

Peacebuilding through nonviolence requires work by international institutions and nations, but it also requires leaders in all fields to apply the Beatitudes to their work.  They – that is, we – need to ‘show mercy by refusing to discard people, harm the environment or seek to win at any cost’; we need to face conflict head on, to choose solidarity, face differences constructively and non-violently. 

The Pope pledges the assistance of the Church ‘in every effort to build peace through active and creative nonviolence’, even as we work to banish violence from our hearts, words and deeds.

It’s up to us!  As John F Kennedy put it: ‘let us go forth … asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.’


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

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