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Pacem in Terris and Catholic Peacebuilding today

Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ
Pastoral Companion


Pacem in Terris and Catholic Peacebuilding today

IN preparation for next year’s 50th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in collaboration with Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, held a seminar on “New Challenges for Catholic Peacebuilding.”  This was held on 29-30 May 2012 at the PCJP conference hall, San Calisto, Vatican City, in Trastevere, Rome.

More than 40 participants representing a cross-section of Catholic peacebuilders came from different parts of the world, particularly from conflict areas in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Catholic Church has been called “a powerful force for peace, freedom, justice and reconciliation.” However, the courageous peacebuilding efforts of many Catholic communities often remain unknown and under-analyzed. Hence the objectives of the seminar were to map out the best practices of contemporary peacebuilding and to reflect on Pacem in Terris as a living document that could inspire “the further development of Catholic theology, ethics, practice, and spirituality of peacebuilding.”


Significance of Pacem in Terris

Echoing the angelic message of peace on earth on that first Christmas night, Pope John’s encyclical has been called the “first declaration of human rights by the Catholic magisterium.” Indeed, Pacem in Terris only came 15 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. But its systematic exposition of human rights complements and deepens the meaning of human rights enumerated in the United Nations document. The U.N. declaration of human rights came in the aftermath of two world wars that had witnessed the gross violations of human rights against individuals as well as against sovereign states. On the other hand, Pacem in Terris came in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 which brought the superpowers onto the brink of a Third World War.

The papal encyclical does not make the usual appeal to banish war and uphold the ideal of peace. Rather, as pointed out by Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, PCJP President, the encyclical starts out on the building blocks of human dignity and human relationships.  From these core values, in widening circles, Pope John’s social encyclical describes Order between men (PT 8-45); Relations between individuals and the public authorities (PT 46-79); Relations between states (PT 80-129); and Relationship of men and of political communities with the world community (PT 130-145).

The encyclical ends with an exhortation to uphold the four pillars of peace – namely, truth, justice, love and freedom. These are virtues that need to be pursued and concretized – whether it be a judicial trial, the massacre of defenseless citizens by an oppressive state, or the continued outcry for social reforms.

Pacem in Terris was signed by Pope John XXIII only a month before he died.  It was also his legacy to the Second Vatican Council that he had convened to open the windows of the Church to the modern world. In the half-century since the issuance of the encyclical in 1963, the world has undergone dramatic changes in technological innovations in communications, and socio-economic globalization. Human rights awareness has been institutionalized in practically every country’s constitution. Yet, sadly, armed conflicts and internecine wars continue to afflict many countries in various stages of development. More often than not, these conflicts take place within the boundaries of a state – in terms of armed rebellion, civil war or terroristic acts of violence.


Catholic Peacebuilding in practice

It is in this light that Catholic peacebuilding practices, while espousing universal guiding principles, are carried out under localized circumstances. In Colombia, beset over many decades by the incursions of several armed movements fighting over territory and drug trafficking, many bishops have taken the initiative to provide spaces for dialogue in their dioceses. Msgr. Hector Fabio Henao, Director of the Secretariado Nacional de Pastoral Social, describes how the Colombian bishops have formed an Episcopal Peace Commission to periodically reflect and exchange information on current conflict situations in different parts of the country. Some of the bishops have also joined a National Conciliation Commission with government and other sectors to create conditions for peace and reconciliation in the country.

In Nigeria which fell into a three-year period of civil war in the 60’s that claimed nearly a million lives, the Catholic Church responded positively to the federal government’s policy of the three Rs: Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation.  Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto diocese reported in the seminar how the two pastoral visits of Pope John Paul II to Nigeria in 1982 and 1998 helped to arouse in the people the imperatives of dialogue, power sharing and justice. Throughout the years under dictatorial rule, “the average Nigerian citizen whether Muslim or Christian, acknowledges that the Catholic Bishops have been truly the voice of the voiceless,” Bishop Kukah commented.

On the Philippine island of Mindanao, I reported on the formation of the Bishops-Ulama Conference involving Catholic and Protestant bishops and Muslim ulama as partners in dialogue over the past 16 years.  This was cited as an unprecedented example of how religious leaders can look on their religions not as sources of conflict but rather as resources for peace. In one or other of these dialogue meetings, bishops and ulama shared convergent passages from the Bible and the Koran on the sources of peace; the exalted role of Mary or Maryam; the meaning of forgiveness and reconciliation; and love of God and of neighbor as the two greatest precepts of both religions.

Other seminar participants gave summary reports on their various activities related to human rights, justice, and peace—e.g., Sr. Marie-Bernard Alima Mbalula on the need for international action to address widespread rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Archbishop Charles Bo on the human rights situation of cultural minorities in Myanmar; Fr. George Sigamoney on labor problems among the plantation workers in Sri Lanka; and Mme. Laura Vargas on the plight of indigenous people communities in Peru.


The challenges ahead

As a living document, how do we interpret the message of Pacem in Terris for the future.  In his summation of the seminar’s proceedings, Dr. Scott Appleby, CPN Director, outlines some challenges.

First, the Church affirms in this document that we should move beyond “negative peace” to a just peace. Our goal is not simply to end wars, but to rebuild social relations that have been sundered or choked with suspicions and prejudice. This is pertinent to the Philippine government’s peace negotiations with Muslim armed groups and with the National Democratic Front. Both armed struggles have a long history that can be traced back to the root causes of the conflict.

Secondly, church groups working for peace need to work with other partners and institutions, including government agencies and international organizations. We also need to expand our peace constituency – i.e., among local communities and civil society groups that can be crucial advocates for a just and lasting peace. Among Christian and Muslim communities in the southern Philippines, the yearly Mindanao Week of Peace has encouraged various sectors to work for peace. In other parts of the country, the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform has conducted sub-regional seminars on the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law signed by both government and NDFP panels in 1998.

Thirdly, we have to be aware of new forms of social conflict – e.g., in drug and human trafficking, environmental destruction, and acts of terrorism. The consciousness and appreciation of new rights has likewise come to the fore, such as the rights of the unborn, the rights of cultural minorities, the right to a healthy environment, and even the right of succeeding generations to a sustainable environment.

Finally, a distinctive aspect of Catholic peacebuilding is the call for healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Catholic peacebuilders work first with the victims of violence; they accompany internally displaced persons; they are present to the oppressed even as they take the risks in confronting the oppressor; they strive to broker the peace by providing spaces for dialogue.

On my last day in Rome, I had a chance to visit St. Peter’s Basilica just before its closing in the evening. There in the quiet glow of an archway light, I came across the laid-out body of Blessed Pope John XXIII, lying serenely underneath a side altar. As I paid my respect and said a prayer, the concluding words in his encyclical came to mind: “Peace is but an empty word, if it does not rest upon…an order that is founded on truth, built up on justice, nurtured and animated by charity, and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom” (PT 167).

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