The following commentary from the April 30 edition of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, was written by Mark Lombard, business manager and contributing editor.
“Ever-more horrendous acts of cruelty done against innocent civilians, unarmed women and children, whose innocent blood cries out to heaven and implores, ‘End this war. Silence the weapons. Stop sowing death and destruction.'”
While the Vatican has for decades sought to avoid taking sides in any international dispute, Pope Francis, with these words at the first April general audience,” made it clear where he believes the global community’s sympathies should lie.
Also, the day after the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the Holy Father broke protocol and went directly to the Russian Embassy in the Holy See to appeal for peace. In the weeks following, he spoke to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky offering spiritual support and suggested visiting the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was very much “on the table.”
While proclaiming “In the name of God, I ask you: Stop this massacre,” he stopped short of naming the “you,” of calling out Russian President Vladimir Putin or even his spiritual supporter, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. But he did point an implicit, direct finger and blamed a “potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interests” for casting “dark shadows of war.”
And even during his April 17 “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and the world) address, Pope Francis decried having to live through another “Easter of war,” implicitly criticizing Russia for dragging its sovereign neighbor into a “cruel and senseless” conflict.
It is not the first time a Roman pontiff has inserted himself between the territorial ambitions of a tyrant from the east descending on Europe.
In the 13th century, Pope Innocent IV sent a letter to the newly installed Güyük Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, after attacks against Russia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Austria and parts of present-day Germany.
His appeal to refrain from attacks of Christian Europe and other nations and for the Khan to consider conversion to Christianity was received and then returned with an outraged demand for papal submission to “render us service and pay us homage.” No submission occurred, but diplomacy continued.
In the shadow of the Second World War, Stalin was allegedly urged to respond significantly to Pope Pius XII’s concerns about protecting the practice of Catholicism in Russia and in Eastern Europe and allowing the pontiff a voice in forthcoming postwar negotiations.
The Soviet premier — with versions of this story including being so informed by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and French Prime Minister Pierre Laval — responded: “How many divisions has the pope?”
The implication was clear: The only language authoritarianism understands and the only currency worth trading is the raw exercise of power, the armed aggression against countries and the forced occupation of peoples.
And, yet, Stalin’s realpolitik quip, which he is said to have used on numerous occasions when the Holy Father’s influence was raised to switch focus to the ruthlessly practical might over the ethical, moral right, fails to consider the power of the Chair of Peter.
While ruling the smallest independent country in the world — Vatican City — and while, with due respect to the papal Swiss Guards, having no army, the papacy has always drawn its authority not at the point of a gun but on giving voice to a message of peace and justice through diplomacy. It aims to give a voice to the voiceless and to take the long view especially with the eons-long threat Europe has felt from the east.
Then what of the divisions the Holy Father has here on earth of faithful Christians and non-Christians moved by more than threats of intimidation? What is it, or is there really anything, any of us can do in the face of such unmasked aggression from thousands of miles away? Or do we, as some commentators suggest, need to simply stay out of Putin’s way to prevent WWIII?
As the Ukrainian people have demonstrated the flaccidity of Russian aggression when a world, often divided and fractured, is committed to standing up, we owe ourselves, our families — actual and spiritual — and our communities more than choosing to sit quietly on the sidelines, including:
— Keep ourselves informed with a variety of news sources. The importance of having a handle on what is happening allows us to engage with others intelligently and to process the changing news without being unduly swayed by those who have their own agendas.
— Use social media, rather than be used by it, to share information, as the pope urges, about a world where raw aggression is not seen as an answer or apathy to world events is not seen as an appropriate response.
— Be welcoming of those who, due to economic issues or live in war-torn parts of the world, seek safe refuge for themselves and their families and thereby reject the xenophobia and nationalism that pits people against people, as Pope Francis made clear in his recent visit to Malta.
— Try to deepen our understanding of the roots of this conflict, which predated the invasion of a sovereign Ukraine, in order to inoculate us to the misinformation promoted through social media. In my case, reading such books as “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America,” and the best-selling, “On Tyranny,” both by historian and scholar Timothy Snyder, helped me to have a better handle on the drive of totalitarianism and its threat to democracy.
— Consider donating for relief of the million-plus refugees from this tragedy.
— Pray. As an Easter people watching the tragedy of Ukraine during Lent and now into the Easter season, our faith calls us to recognize and act upon the power of prayer to truly connect with God, with our neighbor, with those suffering thousands of miles away. And ultimately, through prayer, to reject the callousness of the belief that real power is found only at the end of a gun.
The views or positions presented in this or any guest editorial are those of the individual publication and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicPhilly.com, Catholic News Service or of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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