On Saturday, Nicole Winfield, reporting on ABC News, spoke about the prayer vigil at Saint Peter’s Square in these words:
The Vatican estimated about 100,000 took part in the Rome event, making it one of the largest rallies in the West against proposed U.S.-led military action against the Syrian regime following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus.
Yes, there were that many people there, but the reason we were gathered was not “against U.S.-led military action against the Syrian regime”. Here we touch one of the most beautiful realities of our Christian faith, and one of the ways in which our faith is often misunderstood in the world.
So many people know what the Church is against, but too few stop to ask why the Church takes a position one way or the other. Why was the Pope’s response to the violence in Syria and proposed US military action precisely prayer and not a political rally (there are many of those around the world too)? We are invited by this gesture of the Pope to go deeper into reality, deeper into the “why” of our Faith.
In a previous post, I referenced Pope Benedict XVI who at the beginning of the Year of Faith warned us against being too concerned with the social, political or cultural consequences of faith and forgetting the center of Christian faith, the person of Jesus and His Good News.
So, why did we gather in St Peter’s Square on Saturday night? Why did we fast and pray for peace wherever we happened to be on September 7?
In the Pope’s address to the world on Saturday evening, he invited everyone to look at the Cross of Christ. Everyone–Christian, Muslim, any person of good will. There we will find God’s response to violence: mercy, reconciliation, peace. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
We pray precisely because we cannot give peace to ourselves. Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “Peace I leave you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give it.” Peace is a by-product, we could say, of the presence of Christ. The presence of Christ answers our need for peace. This peace begins in our own heart, then spreads to our families, our friends, our neighbors, our country, our world. The peace of Christ makes it possible to respond to violence or hurt, to the sins of others against us, with clemency, with fraternity, with encounter instead of violence or a wall of separation.
Pope Francis often uses this word “encounter” to talk about what characterizes true relationships. The opposite of encounter would be control. I can encounter and accept another person only if I am certain and strong in my own identity. If I am not, I seek to control or manipulate or do violence to another person in order to stay in my illusion, my false peace.
But the peace of Christ changes all of these things. It turns the world upside down. As Christians, we are neither optimists or pessimists; we are joyful. Optimism and pessimism are things we choose, the way we choose to look at a situation. Joy is the discovery of God in the midst of any circumstance. The martyrs who faced death had the most reason to be pessimistic about their “prospects” and about those who put them to death. Yet, St. Maximilian Kolbe, for example, can sing in the concentration camp. Why? The presence of Christ, and the joy and peace that spring from the encounter with Him who gives substance to our life.
So, that is why we gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Saturday evening. It was the largest gathering of its kind in the West. But “its kind” is quite different than what the world can see. The eyes of faith see everything that the world sees, but we see more. We see things through the lens of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ–Jesus who, after His Resurrection, entered the upper room of His Apostles and said “Peace be with you.” This is why we prayed the Rosary and adored the Blessed Sacrament instead of chanting some political slogan.
The occasion for this vigil was of course the situation in Syria. But the message is always the same. Jesus Christ is the answer, the answer to a question that remains in every new situation, globally or in our own heart. Quid animo satis? What truly satisfies the heart of man?