The beginning of a New Year gives us the opportunity to reflect on our lives and our world, and to pray for God’s help and protection as we move forward into the future. We pray for many things — health, security, strength and wisdom, to name a few. Among all these things, a key concern is to pray for peace.
How do people of faith understand peace? In the Old Testament and the New Testament, the word “peace” has a wide range of meaning.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word shalom refers to wholeness and well-being. It is used in greetings and farewells, and implies good wishes and wholesome intentions. It can refer to peace as opposed to war, or security from invasion.
In part, shalom refers to material well-being; however, shalom is not simply prosperity and security. Righteousness (right relationship with God) and faithfulness are essential components of peace.
The prophets speak of peace as a future blessing. Isaiah speaks of the future Messiah as the “Prince of Peace,” whose “dominion is vast and forever peaceful.” (Isaiah 9:5-6)
The New Testament was written in Greek, and in the Greek world, the world for peace, irene, was used to mean the absence of war or conflict. However, the way the New Testament authors use the word reflects much of the Old Testament understanding of shalom. There are instances in the New Testament, in which the word “peace” is almost synonymous with “salvation.”
“Peace” is a greeting in the New Testament, and the risen Jesus uses it to greet his Apostles. St. Paul, in his letters, often uses the greeting, “Grace and peace to you.”
The New Testament makes it clear Jesus is the one who brings about peace. It is through the blood of his cross that Jesus establishes reconciliation and peace.
Jesus, when preaching his “Sermon on the Mount,” proclaimed, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) Peace is the fullness of God’s gifts, and all peace is from God. Perfect peace, of course, will only be realized in the Kingdom of Heaven. However, the Gospel helps us to understand that to be a disciple of Christ requires an active pursuit of peace.
Jan. 1, 2023, marked the 56th World Day of Peace. Every year, the Holy Father writes a message for the World Day of Peace, which he sends to heads of state and government, heads of international organizations and religious leaders. The theme of his 2023 message is “No one can be saved alone.” In it, Pope Francis urges people to reflect upon and learn from the experience of the global pandemic, and to work together for peace. (See “Message of His Holiness Pope Francis For the 56th World Day of Peace, 1 January, 2023” on the Vatican website.) He writes that this moment, three years after the start of the pandemic, is the right time to contemplate the experience, study it and allow what we have learned to transform us.
Pope Francis begins his message with a quote from St. Paul: “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come to you like a thief in the night.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-2)
The Holy Father explains that with these words, St. Paul encouraged the members of the Christian community to remain steadfast in faith, while being firmly planted in the world around them, awaiting the Lord’s return. They were not to withdraw into fear or resignation but rather to keep watch for Christ even in the darkest of times. This message reminds us that God calls us to be hopeful and trust in him in the midst of our contemporary struggles.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted life as we knew it, interrupted our plans, and brought about suffering and death to great numbers of people. It also exposed societal fractures and inequalities, which left many throughout our world jobless and without support during the lockdown.
Pope Francis states that the question before us at this moment is, “What did we learn from the pandemic?” He proceeds to answer this question by writing that “the greatest lesson we learned from COVID-19 was the realization that we need one another.” There is an urgent need to work together to seek and promote values that aid the growth of human fraternity. In some ways, the pandemic renewed within us a sense of solidarity, making us more sensitive to the suffering of other people and more responsive to them in their need.
The pandemic made us more aware of our need for solidarity. Pope Francis writes, “For it is together, in fraternity and solidarity, that we build peace, ensure justice and emerge from the greatest disasters. Indeed, the most effective responses to the pandemic came from social groups, public and private institutions, and international organizations that put aside their particular interests and joined forces to meet the challenges. Only the peace that comes from a fraternal and disinterested love can help us overcome personal, societal and global crises.”
Pope Francis went on to write that even as we seemed to emerge from the darkest hours of the pandemic, another disaster struck humanity — the war in Ukraine. The war has resulted in the killing of innocent lives and massive destruction, and brought about instability and insecurity, along with the collateral effects of the grain shortage and rising fuel prices.
This war, along with other conflicts, according to the Holy Father, is a great setback for all humanity. He writes, “While a vaccine has been found for COVID-19, suitable solutions have not yet been found for the war. Certainly, the virus of war is more difficult to overcome, because it comes, not from outside of us, but from within the human heart corrupted by sin.” (cf. Gospel of Mark 7:17-23)
Pope Francis states the experience of the COVID-19 crisis calls us to a conversion of heart. We must allow God to transform the way we view the world around us. Personal and national interests can no longer be our main criteria for our decisions and actions in the world. Instead, he writes, “… we must think in terms of the common good, recognizing that we belong to a greater community, and opening our minds and hearts to universal human fraternity.”
The crises that we are experiencing, at this moment in time — be they moral, economic, political or social — are not isolated problems. They are interconnected and, in reality, are causes and effects of each other. Pope Francis challenges leaders to combat the challenges our world faces “in a spirit of responsibility and compassion.” Promoting actions that enhance peace and end conflicts, caring for our common home, battling economic inequality, developing policies to welcome and integrate immigrants — these are all ways of extending God’s mercy and cooperating with the building up of God’s kingdom of love.
We have begun a brand new year. We pray that the leaders of the nations, of the international organizations, and of the different religions put into place actions and policies that lead to a more peaceful world. We pray, too, that the Lord transform our hearts and minds so that we may advocate for peace in all that we say and do. May God bless us throughout this year and always.