In calling for a day of fasting and prayer for peace on Sept. 7, Pope Francis is following a long tradition of Popes showing a deep commitment to peace.
There is “an evolution of the theology of peace” from the pontificate of Pope Pius IX to that of Pope Francis, says Jesuit Fr. Francesco Occhetta, of Italy’s “La Civiltà Cattolica” review.
From the mid- to late-1800s, Pope Pius IX actively promoted a culture of peace, which also gave an impetus to ecumenical dialogue. His efforts led to the foundation of several European magazines including “La Civiltà Cattolica” as well as Great Britain’s “The Month” and “Etudes” of France.
During his time as Pope, Catholics and Protestants collaborated to found a school in Rome to study international law and train international mediators committed to conflict resolution.
Pope Leo XIII, Pius IX’s successor, took the message on the road when he took part in a conference on disarmament at The Hague on May 18, 1899. There, he made a proposal for “political peace.” Some of the 26 nations that took part in the conference acknowledged the Pope as a conflict mediator because of his “universal paternity.”
Later, on Aug. 1, 1917, Pope Benedict XV issued his famous peace plan, in which he defined war as “useless massacre.”
During the Second World War, Pope Pius XII appealed for peace in a message broadcast by Vatican Radio. This message is considered by Msgr. Mario Toso, the current secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to be a “true encyclical on the social teaching of the Church.”
It is one of the most famous Pius XII statements and it was made on Aug. 24, 1939, just a few hours before the Nazi invasion of Poland.
“Nothing is lost with peace. Everything can be lost with war,” Pope Pius XII stressed in that statement.
Along with its diplomatic efforts, the Church also called for prayer to achieve peace.
In asking that Sept. 7 be observed as a day of prayer and fasting for peace, Pope Francis is reviving Blessed Pope John Paul II’s efforts.
On five occasions, John Paul II called for days of fasting and prayer for peace between 1986 and 2003.
The first was on Oct. 27, 1986, for the historical first meeting of religious leaders in Assisi.
The second and third were held for an end to the conflict in Bosnia Herzegovina, on Jan. 10, 1993, and on Jan. 21, 1994.
After the attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, Pope John Paul II wanted once more to unite religions in Assisi, to pray and fast for world peace. In that case, the Pope called for fasting on Dec. 14, 2001, while a meeting for prayer in Assisi took place on Jan. 24, 2002.
Then, with the winds of the Second Gulf War already blowing, John Paul II called for one last day of fasting and prayer for peace on Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2003.
These days of prayer were often accompanied by a strong diplomatic effort carried forward by the Holy See.
Right before the Second Gulf War, for example, John Paul II sent Cardinal Roger Etchegaray as a sort of Vatican special envoy to the crisis area. The Holy See was also committed as mediator in the dialogue between the Italian and Iraqi governments, sponsoring a visit to Italy by Tareq Aziz, a Catholic and the Iraqi vice president.
In this case, the efforts were in vain.
They were not, however, in 1962, during the papacy of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who had been apostolic nuncio and knew diplomacy well.
Informed of the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, U.S. President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade and demanded the removal of the missiles, threatening to attack Cuba if the removal did not take place.
The attack could have certainly provoked an escalation of arms, as the Soviet Union was ready to react.
John XXIII committed himself to achieving a peaceful solution, and decided to intervene with a radio message, aired by Vatican Radio on Oct. 25.
Speaking in French – the language of Vatican diplomacy – Pope John XXIII underlined that “the Church cared most about peace and fraternity among human beings,” and begged “the head of States not to be callous to the call of humanity” and to “do everything they can to save the peace.”
Headlined by the most important international media outlets, Blessed John XXIII’s words gave new impetus to the diplomatic effort, and the “Cuban crisis” was avoided.