January 1 will be the 50th World Day of Peace, an event Blessed Paul VI introduced to a troubled planet in 1968. Every pope since then has used the first day of the New Year to deliver a message for peace that is shared with foreign ministries around the world.
It is a noble tradition with only one failing — half a century later it remains necessary. The world is no closer to harmony today than when Paul first implored people of all nations to embrace “the grand idea of peace.”
Fifty years ago, the Cold War raged and armed turmoil engulfed the Middle East, Southeast Asia, much of Africa and Northern Ireland. The Pope believed dedicating a day to building peace might eventually free humanity “from its sad and fatal bellicose conflicts” and help create a world that is “more happy, ordered and civilized.”
Rare for the time, his message was not directed solely at Catholics. Paul spoke to people of all religions, races and nations. He appealed to the young and old, to government leaders, international organizations, religious institutions and to all cultures which agreed that “peace is both necessary and threatened.”
“Peace is a new spirit which must animate co-existence between peoples,” he wrote.
He urged the “new generations” to foster respect between nations, collaboration between races and brotherhood between peoples. Peace must be woven into the very the fabric of society. “Men must always speak of peace,” he said. “The world must be educated to love peace, to build it up and defend it.”
Sadly, the decades have been unkind to Paul’s hopeful vision. There has been no break in mankind’s string of wars, civil uprisings and terrorist attacks. The year ends with Syria’s civil war producing a massacre in Aleppo, conflict in several African nations, fighting in Ukraine, Iraq and Afghanistan, and Islamic terror casting a black shroud over the globe.
Paul knew peace was complicated. He acknowledged “the inescapable storms” of history yet refused to believe civilization would fail to achieve its “highest destiny.” His banner has been taken up by every pope since 1968.
In the 50th World Day of Peace message, Pope Francis urged a groundswell for peace through “active and creative nonviolence.” That does not mean surrender and passivity, he says, but is a call to become passionate, involved and non-violent activists for a peaceful world. Use peace to build peace.
He has echoed Paul’s hopeful appeal for the real thing — for the world to live in peaceful harmony.