I am not a historian but I don’t know of any precedents, of any popes who asked the church to fast for peace – and against a specific war.
Pope John Paul II spoke strongly against the Iraq war and was largely ignored by the US, including many of the US bishops. (See the strong blog entry of Bishop Robert Lynch.) Pope John XXIII worked behind the scenes to prevent the Cuban missile crisis from escalating into war.
But what pope has done this – calling for a day of prayer and fasting and setting aside several hours for public prayer for peace.
In their 1963 pastoral letter on peace, The Challenge of Peace, ¶ 298, the US bishops asked Catholics to devote Friday as a day of prayer and fasting for peace, as a sign of conversion:
As a tangible sign of our need and desire to do penance we, for the cause of peace, commit ourselves to fast and abstinence on each Friday of the year. We call upon our people voluntarily to do penance on Friday by eating less food and by abstaining from meat. This return to a traditional practice of penance, once well observed in the U.S. Church, should be accompanied by works of charity and service toward our neighbors. Every Friday should be a day significantly devoted to prayer, penance, and almsgiving for peace.But a pope asking all the world’s Catholics to join in prayer and fasting seems altogether new. The response of leaders of other religions has been very heartening.
But the message of Pope Francis is stronger than much of what we Catholics hear from our religious leaders. In his September 1 Angelus message, he said:
I wish to make add my voice to the cry which rises up with increasing anguish from every part of the world, from every people, from the heart of each person, from the one great family which is humanity: it is the cry for peace! It is a cry which declares with force: we want a peaceful world, we want to be men and women of peace, and we want in our society, torn apart by divisions and conflict, that peace break out! War never again! Never again war! Peace is a precious gift, which must be promoted and protected….In one way Pope Francis echoes the eloquent plea of Pope Paul VI at the UN in 1965:
There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable! Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war; violence begets violence….
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. May the plea for peace rise up and touch the heart of everyone so that they may lay down their weapons and be let themselves be led by the desire for peace.
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.
No more war, war never again. It is peace, peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind.The words of Pope Francis echo the plea for peace that Pope John Paul II made at Drogheda, Ireland, in 1979:
I proclaim, with the conviction of my faith in Christ and with an awareness of my mission, that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings. Violence is a crime against humanity, for it destroys the very fabric of society….But this pope, named after the peacemaker Francis, is not only talking about peace. He is asking all of us to begin the process of conversion that leads to peace.
To all of you who are listening I say: do not believe in violence; do not support violence. It is not the Christian way. It is not the way of the Catholic Church. Believe in peace and forgiveness and love; for they are of Christ.
And so as we empty our lives of food today may our hearts be opened to all those in need, all those suffering from violence, war, and injustice. And may the hearts of all of us be opened.
Thomas Merton is a good guide for what our prayer should be today. As he wrote in “The Root of War is Fear” in New Seeds of Contemplation in the early 1960s:
When I pray for peace, I pray not only that the enemies of my country may cease to want war, but above all that my own country will cease to do the things that make war inevitable. In other words, when I pray for peace I am not just praying that the Russians will give up without a struggle and let us have our own way. I am praying that both we and the Russians may somehow be restored to sanity and learn how to work out our problems, as best we can, together, instead of preparing for global suicide. …And so today, I’ll try to fast as I go out to two sector meetings in distant villages and then spend the night in Dulce Nombre to prepare for the parish feast day on Sunday, September 8.
So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed -- but hate these things in yourself, not in the other.