Fasting for Peace

Pope Francis asks us to fast for peace in Syria this Saturday, September 7

A Syrian Muslim girl stands at the top of Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus. (CNS/Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)
A Syrian Muslim girl stands at the top of Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus. (CNS/Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)
“I appeal strongly for peace, an appeal which arises from the deep within me. How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake in that martyred country, especially among civilians and the unarmed! I think of many children will not see the light of the future! With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons: I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart.” — Pope Francis

With the recent revelations that chemical weapons have been used in Syria’s civil war, the United States has been clear about how seriously it takes these human rights violations. Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry reported that Syria’s government has used sarin gas against its own people.

To be clear, Pope Francis also abhors these human rights violations.

President Obama will be asking congress to authorize a military attack against the Syrian regime that will be tactical in nature. “No boots on the ground” has been the promise from the president, but rather, a narrow military strike. This is not merely a warning shot over the bow, but rather a strategic blow meant to send a message and also to punish the Syrian government for what it has done.

Pope Francis also abhors such a response:

“With all my strength, I ask each party in this conflict to listen to the voice of their own conscience, not to close themselves in solely on their own interests, but rather to look at each other as brothers and decisively and courageously to follow the path of encounter and negotiation, and so overcome blind conflict. With similar vigor I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people.

… I repeat forcefully: it is neither a culture of confrontation nor a culture of conflict which builds harmony within and between peoples, but rather a culture of encounter and a culture of dialogue; this is the only way to peace.”

To clarify the pope’s words and the Catholic teaching behind them, the use of force is only to be employed as a last resort to protect the needs of a given population. While the needs of the Syrian people are paramount, the pope is asking all of us to not sink to the level of their aggressors. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2308) is clear:

All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.
However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

The pope is asking that a peaceful solution be found, rather than shooting first and asking questions later. War needs to be a final option in a solution of many. If we begin with a military strike, who knows what the Syrians, or worse, terrorists groups with no allegiance to any particular country, may do? At the very least, we should exhaust all peaceful options before resorting to military tactics. Pope Francis and Catholic teaching are reminding us that we are called to seek peace.

What else is Pope Francis asking us to do?

“To this end, brothers and sisters, I have decided to proclaim for the whole Church on 7 September next, the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world, and I also invite each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative.”

Some will ask, what good fasting will do? Well, prayer and fasting aren’t done to magically change situations. They are done in order to change us. The poor in Syria need our voice. And for us to be tied more closely to them, perhaps we need to know what it feels like to be hungry. To give up a meal that people would long for in Syria — where a good deal of the population doesn’t get one meal a day, never mind the three most of us get. Giving up one meal places us in solidarity with the Syrian people and allows others to see that we are praying for them.

Many people will be taking part in this day of fasting and prayer. (Some in the United States have chosen to make Friday, September 6, a day to gather for prayer in workplaces and schools, simply because it is easier to gather people that are already gathered.)

May peace be in our hearts this Saturday (and all days) and may we heed the call of Pope Francis to move toward peace, to avoid war, and to stand up for the rights of the most vulnerable in the world with love as our only weapon.