Day of Peace
Homily of Archbishop Peter Gerety
Archbishop Emeritus of Newark, New Jersey
Given on January 1, 2007
St. Charles Borromeo Church
Readings: Isaiah 9, 1-6
James 3: 13-18
Matthew 5: 1-21
Our Mass today is being offered as a solemn prayer for peace in our time, universal peace among the nations of the earth.
We gather for this purpose in response to the request of our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, that all over the world, Catholics join together on this first day of the New Year to offer the Holy Sacrifice begging God for the blessing of true peace in our time.
How appropriate that our prayer should be joined with that of Our Lord in the offering of His Body and Blood on this day.
How often in the Eucharistic Prayer we beg for peace.
Together we say the Lord's Prayer and ask that He deliver us from evil. What could be more catastrophic, what more evil than war?
And immediately the priest at the alter says, "Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day." And, he goes on, Lord, Jesus Christ, You said to Your apostles: I leave you peace, My peace I give you. Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church and grant us the peace and unity of Your Kingdom." And, then, always conscious that peace on this earth is a gift from the Almighty God, we pray, "Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, grant us peace."
The Prophet Isaiah, in our first reading in this Mass, reminds us that the Messiah, the Savior Who was to come would be "Prince of Peace". He indeed came among us to reconcile us to God and to one another. His teachings, if put into action, can bring about peace among the nations for they respond to the most fundamental aspirations of humanity.
"Peace on earth to those whom His favor rests," the angels sang as they announced the incarnation of Christ Our Lord and His coming to live among us.
For centuries upon centuries, the most heartfelt cries of men and women all over the world have implored heaven to deliver us from the scourge of war. The Christian body, the Church, has, of course, never denied the right of self-defense, the necessity of taking up arms for the defense of the homeland and the protection for our citizens. In this connection, my family has always been proud that four of our brothers were in the armed forces during World War II. One of them was killed in action in Europe. That was a truly just war if there every was one. Just recently, Pope Benedict XVI said that there are values that are worth fighting for.
On the other hand, even a cursory knowledge of the history of the human race makes it clear that in an enormous number of cases of conflict, the motives which brought about the horrors of war were far from pure.
Saint James in his supposedly raises the question: "Where do the conflicts and disputes among you originate?" And then, he goes on with the answer: "Is it not your inner-cravings that make war within your members? What you desire you do not obtain, and so you resort to murder. You envy and you cannot acquire, so you quarrel and fight. (St. James, 4:1).
Can't you see original sin rearing its ugly head in those words?
The psalmist said, in the Latin version, "Prosunditas est homo et cor eius abyssus." ("Man is profundity and his heart is an abyss.") It is an abyss filled with glorious ideals, God-like quality. How could it be otherwise, since, as the Bible teaches us, men and women are created as images of God.
"There are many wonderful things in nature," says Sophocles, "But the most wonderful of all is man," and how beautifully Shakespeare describes man's nobility in words he puts on Hamlet's lips, "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of the other animals!"
And yet, in this abyss, which is the heart of man, are all sorts of tendencies towards evil.
All we have to do is read the daily paper with its tales of the terrible deeds human beings perpetrate on one another.
The history of humankind all through the centuries seems almost to be an unending story of calamitous wars among the peoples of the earth. My reading tells me that most times it starts not for self-defense, but for motives of greed and of thirst for domination. Theft, murder, rape, the wasting of the land, the destruction of family life always come in its train.
"War is hell!", said General William Tecumseh Sherman - and he certainly knew because he made it hell for the South during the Civil War. War is frequently glorified in our history books. It is in reality hell. It is a horror. So, frequently, those who start it are guilty of sin against God and man.
That long, sad tale of war throughout the centuries is so overwhelming that one would be inclined to throw up one's hands and say "peace is impossible". In fact, it is obvious from the gospels that Our Lord Himself never taught that complete peace, that complete elimination of war was possible. Indeed, He warned His followers that they would frequently have to suffer. "Do not be alarmed. Such things are bound to happen, but that is not the end. There will be famine and pestilence, earthquakes in many places...because of the increase of evil, the love of most will grow cold. The man who holds out to the end, however, is the one who will see salvation." (Mt. 24 passin.)
Our Lord was a realist about human nature. Indeed, hatred in human hearts led to his ultimate sacrifice. It led to his crucifixion.
Despite the fact that Our Lord did not expect the complete elimination of war, i.e., "There will be war and rumors of war -", nevertheless, He gave us hope that with good will and large efforts we can do much to spread peace on this earth.
The gospel for today brings us the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord taught, "Blest are the peacemakers; they shall be called sons of God." And, He adds to this list of beatitudes, "Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven."
What, then, are the conditions on earth that must be established in order for peace to come?
Here is where we should pay attention to the teachings of the Popes. With increasing urgency, all during the last century, the successors of Peter have over and over again raised their voices urging the nations to reconcile with one another. They have striven to be the voice of Christ, the Christ Who is our peace.
Their message has become ever more insistent as the scientific powers of destruction have become greater and greater with the passage of time.
I was struck recently by the words of one of our leading historians concerning this very point. Here is what he says, "A hundred years after nineteen hundred were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era."
No wonder the Popes have been ever more insistent on what Sir Winston Churchill called, "Jaw, jaw - rather than war, war." In other words, talk to one another, negotiate rather than shoot.
Certain dramatic actions of the Popes in the last few decades are memorable. Very striking was Pope Paul VI's visit to the United Nations in 1965. His appeal was unforgettable. As he stood before all those representatives of the nations of the world gathered to listen to the Pope, as he spoke for the conscience of all mankind. He cried out, "Jamais plus la guerre! Jamais plus la guerre!" "No more war! No more war!"
Then, in 1963, there was Pope John XXIII's encyclical, "Pacem in Terris", or "Peace on Earth". Good Pope John XXIII appealed to the signs of the times saying, "Men are becoming more and more convinced that disputes which arise between the States should not be resolved by recourse to arms, but rather by negotiation." And then, building on that increasing sensitivity, proclaims in the strongest possible terms that peace is the fruit of justice. This principle is characteristic of all of the interventions of the Popes. There will be no peace on earth without justice in society. Pope John XXIII quotes Saint Augustine as rightly saying, "What are kingdoms without justice but bands of robbers?"
The cries of mankind for peace are always accompanied by protests against injustices and the demand that justice prevail in the relationships among citizens and among states.
Time and time again, this principle has been insisted upon by the Holy Fathers. Pope John Paul II was very strong on the he question of justice. In this world, there are terrible injustices that are the source of awful tensions among our citizens throughout the world and among the states.
If we look around the world and see the enormous gap between the richest countries and those who are the poorest, we can readily see that something is amiss. If we expect peace, we must address these questions of inequalities and injustice.
The Christian must surely ask himself or herself, "What right do we have to live in comparative comfort, while our brothers die of starvation?" If we ask that question and take action, then we will be on our way to peace in this world.
But, you say, "What can we do?" The problem of injustice and war is so big that we seem to be faced with an impossible task.
But, if we organize, we can can, with the help of God, change people's mind and their attitudes. In parishes, in schools, in membership of organizations like Pax Christi, which are international, we can build a great wave of demand for peace.
We pray, we beg God, we do everything we can feeling great urgency and we can succeed.
There are many examples of what people can accomplish when they get together and organize to pressure their leaders for a change of course. The American Civil Rights Revolution is a good example of what can be done.
From the Black churches came ever stronger cries for the elimination of the terrible injustices resulting from deep racism in this country. Gradually, they were joined by great numbers of people in our churches and synagogues, and by many, many people of good will.
The whole legal structure supporting racial injustice collapsed.
As Christians, we are a resurrection people. We must never give up in our fight for peace and justice. Let our parishes establish peace committees and our dioceses do the same. Let us join with others who, throughout the world, are calling for a change of attitude and for peace to be established.
We can, if we organize with others, persuade our leaders really to live by Sir Winston Churchill's principle, "Jaw, jaw, rather than war, war."