In one of the most intensive visits he has ever made to a country, Pope Benedict XVI spent this past weekend in Lebanon bringing his message of peace and solidarity to that nation and, indeed, to all the Middle East. His homilies and addresses can be found on the Vatican website, www.vatican.va. They are worth reading on many levels, as spiritual reading, as an exhortation to how we all should live, as a Christian reflection on the Middle East, as a road map for the future and in so many other ways. Sadly there was next to nothing about it in our media. We Americans, especially during this election time, could learn much from his words. Our government would be much more helpful there had our leaders listened to and implemented his appeals. We Christians and especially we Catholics could benefit from his call to embrace the cross, to follow Christ and to contribute our time and talent to the renewal of communities and the building of peace.
Above all, in a region where there is so much violence and where the other nations of the world, including our own, are hopelessly mired in war and destruction, this one lone voice spoke the truth with love and offered a new way, a new road for one and all to become peacemakers instead of war supporters. This began even before he arrived in Beirut. On the plane the pope responded to a journalist’s question citing the “Arab Spring” as a positive thing in its “desire for greater democracy, greater freedom, greater cooperation and a revived Arab identity ... a mark of progress ... that has been hailed by Christians too.” Yet he also pointed to revolutions in the past that went from a desire for freedom to violence and even murder. “We must do all we can to ensure that the desire for freedom ... goes in the right direction and does not overlook tolerance, the overall social fabric and reconciliation which are the essential elements of freedom.”
The existence of Lebanon has been the one example in the Middle East — with all its ups and downs, all its moments of shadows and darkness — the one example of Christians and Muslims living and working together in a multi-confessional state. With all the strains which have been experienced in that country these past 50 years, it remains a beacon of hope and thus a land of special significance in the Middle East. That is even more true today when warfare, violence, terrorism, and all the destruction that follows have unleashed new forces of hatred and division. Someone has to say stop. Someone has to speak sense. Someone has to be the voice of reason and tolerance, of dialogue and of respect, of freedom and peace. Pope Benedict is the only one today on the world stage who can claim to be that voice!
In a major address to the governmental leaders in Lebanon he explained what basic principles must be observed for a society to be truly a civil society of justice, freedom and peace. His appeal was to both Christian and Muslim. His words ring true for us as well. “Social cohesion requires unstinting respect for the dignity of each person and the responsible participation of all in contributing the best of their talents and abilities. Our human dignity is inseparable from the sacredness of life ... To build peace we need to look to the family, supporting it and facilitating its task … The effectiveness of our commitment to peace depends on our understanding of human life. If we want peace, let us defend life! This approach leads us to reject not only war and terrorism, but every assault on innocent human life, on men and women as creatures willed by God ... Our first task is to educate for peace in order to build a culture of peace.”
Throughout these three days, Syria was never far from the Holy Father’s mind, heart and prayers. He insistently and courageously called for an end to the hostilities, a respect for every person and every religious tradition in Syria, and a renewal of efforts to resolve the differences by means other than war and the downward spiral of meeting violence with more violence.
At the Sunday Angelus, he made a final plea for Syria and the neighboring countries. “Sadly the din of weapons continues to make itself heard along with the cries of the widow and the orphan. Violence and hatred invade people’s lives and the first victims are women and children! Why so much horror? Why so many dead? I appeal to the international community. I appeal to the Arab countries that, as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting the dignity, the rights and the religion of every human person!”
The international community could well begin by stopping to supply arms. That includes Russia and China. It equally includes the United States and European countries which are making money by providing arms to groups about whom they know little and care less. It includes Arab countries who are our allies and other Muslim countries like Iran which is not and they are just as cynically making it possible for destruction to be ongoing in an ever increasing scale of violence by pouring arms into a civil war. When will it end? How much more destruction of the Middle East will go on at the hands of friends and foes?
We join the Holy Father in his Angelus prayer in Lebanon: “May God grant to your country, to Syria and to the Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons and the cessation of all violence! May men understand they are all brothers! Mary, our Mother, understands our concern and our needs. ... May we, with God’s help, be converted so as to work ardently to establish the peace that is necessary for harmonious existence among brothers, whatever their origins and religious convictions.”