OF THE HOLY FATHER
ON FRATERNITY AND SOCIAL FRIENDSHIP
PATHS OF RENEWED ENCOUNTER
- In many parts of the world, there is a need for paths of peace to heal open wounds. There is also a need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.
STARTING ANEW FROM THE TRUTH
- Renewed encounter does not mean returning to a time prior to conflicts. All of us change over time. Pain and conflict transform us. We no longer have use for empty diplomacy, dissimulation, double-speak, hidden agendas and good manners that mask reality. Those who were fierce enemies have to speak from the stark and clear truth. They have to learn how to cultivate a penitential memory, one that can accept the past in order not to cloud the future with their own regrets, problems and plans. Only by basing themselves on the historical truth of events will they be able to make a broad and persevering effort to understand one another and to strive for a new synthesis for the good of all. Every “peace process requires enduring commitment. It is a patient effort to seek truth and justice, to honour the memory of victims and to open the way, step by step, to a shared hope stronger than the desire for vengeance”. As the Bishops of the Congo have said with regard to one recurring conflict: “Peace agreements on paper will not be enough. We will have to go further, by respecting the demands of truth regarding the origins of this recurring crisis. The people have the right to know what happened”.
- “Truth, in fact, is an inseparable companion of justice and mercy. All three together are essential to building peace; each, moreover, prevents the other from being altered… Truth should not lead to revenge, but rather to reconciliation and forgiveness. Truth means telling families torn apart by pain what happened to their missing relatives. Truth means confessing what happened to minors recruited by cruel and violent people. Truth means recognizing the pain of women who are victims of violence and abuse… Every act of violence committed against a human being is a wound in humanity’s flesh; every violent death diminishes us as people… Violence leads to more violence, hatred to more hatred, death to more death. We must break this cycle which seems inescapable”.
THE VALUE AND MEANING OF FORGIVENESS
- There are those who prefer not to talk of reconciliation, for they think that conflict, violence and breakdown are part of the normal functioning of a society. In any human group there are always going to be more or less subtle power struggles between different parties. Others think that promoting forgiveness means yielding ground and influence to others. For this reason, they feel it is better to keep things as they are, maintaining a balance of power between differing groups. Still others believe that reconciliation is a sign of weakness; incapable of truly serious dialogue, they choose to avoid problems by ignoring injustices. Unable to deal with problems, they opt for an apparent peace.
- Forgiveness and reconciliation are central themes in Christianity and, in various ways, in other religions. Yet there is a risk that an inadequate understanding and presentation of these profound convictions can lead to fatalism, apathy and injustice, or even intolerance and violence.
- Jesus never promoted violence or intolerance. He openly condemned the use of force to gain power over others: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you” (Mt 20:25-26). Instead, the Gospel tells us to forgive “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) and offers the example of the unmerciful servant who was himself forgiven, yet unable to forgive others in turn (cf. Mt 18:23-35).
- Reading other texts of the New Testament, we can see how the early Christian communities, living in a pagan world marked by widespread corruption and aberrations, sought to show unfailing patience, tolerance and understanding. Some texts are very clear in this regard: we are told to admonish our opponents “with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:25) and encouraged “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish” (Tit 3:2-3). The Acts of the Apostles notes that the disciples, albeit persecuted by some of the authorities, “had favour with all the people” (2:47; cf. 4:21.33; 5:13).
- Yet when we reflect upon forgiveness, peace and social harmony, we also encounter the jarring saying of Christ: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be members of his own household” (Mt 10:34-36). These words need to be understood in the context of the chapter in which they are found, where it is clear that Jesus is speaking of fidelity to our decision to follow him; we are not to be ashamed of that decision, even if it entails hardships of various sorts, and even our loved ones refuse to accept it. Christ’s words do not encourage us to seek conflict, but simply to endure it when it inevitably comes, lest deference to others, for the sake of supposed peace in our families or society, should detract from our own fidelity. Saint John Paul II observed that the Church “does not intend to condemn every possible form of social conflict. The Church is well aware that in the course of history conflicts of interest between different social groups inevitably arise, and that in the face of such conflicts Christians must often take a position, honestly and decisively”.
Legitimate conflict and forgiveness
- Nor does this mean calling for forgiveness when it involves renouncing our own rights, confronting corrupt officials, criminals or those who would debase our dignity. We are called to love everyone, without exception; at the same time, loving an oppressor does not mean allowing him to keep oppressing us, or letting him think that what he does is acceptable. On the contrary, true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use, and that diminishes his own humanity and that of others. Forgiveness does not entail allowing oppressors to keep trampling on their own dignity and that of others, or letting criminals continue their wrongdoing. Those who suffer injustice have to defend strenuously their own rights and those of their family, precisely because they must preserve the dignity they have received as a loving gift from God. If a criminal has harmed me or a loved one, no one can forbid me from demanding justice and ensuring that this person – or anyone else – will not harm me, or others, again. This is entirely just; forgiveness does not forbid it but actually demands it.
- The important thing is not to fuel anger, which is unhealthy for our own soul and the soul of our people, or to become obsessed with taking revenge and destroying the other. No one achieves inner peace or returns to a normal life in that way. The truth is that “no family, no group of neighbours, no ethnic group, much less a nation, has a future if the force that unites them, brings them together and resolves their differences is vengeance and hatred. We cannot come to terms and unite for the sake of revenge, or treating others with the same violence with which they treated us, or plotting opportunities for retaliation under apparently legal auspices”. Nothing is gained this way and, in the end, everything is lost.
- To be sure, “it is no easy task to overcome the bitter legacy of injustices, hostility and mistrust left by conflict. It can only be done by overcoming evil with good (cf. Rom 12:21) and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace”. In this way, “persons who nourish goodness in their heart find that such goodness leads to a peaceful conscience and to profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties and misunderstandings. Even when affronted, goodness is never weak but rather, shows its strength by refusing to take revenge”. Each of us should realize that “even the harsh judgment I hold in my heart against my brother or my sister, the open wound that was never cured, the offense that was never forgiven, the rancour that is only going to hurt me, are all instances of a struggle that I carry within me, a little flame deep in my heart that needs to be extinguished before it turns into a great blaze”.
The best way to move on
- When conflicts are not resolved but kept hidden or buried in the past, silence can lead to complicity in grave misdeeds and sins. Authentic reconciliation does not flee from conflict, but is achieved in conflict, resolving it through dialogue and open, honest and patient negotiation. Conflict between different groups “if it abstains from enmities and mutual hatred, gradually changes into an honest discussion of differences founded on a desire for justice”.
- On numerous occasions, I have spoken of “a principle indispensable to the building of friendship in society: namely, that unity is greater than conflict… This is not to opt for a kind of syncretism, or for the absorption of one into the other, but rather for a resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides”. All of us know that “when we, as individuals and communities, learn to look beyond ourselves and our particular interests, then understanding and mutual commitment bear fruit… in a setting where conflicts, tensions and even groups once considered inimical can attain a multifaceted unity that gives rise to new life”.
- Of those who have endured much unjust and cruel suffering, a sort of “social forgiveness” must not be demanded. Reconciliation is a personal act, and no one can impose it upon an entire society, however great the need to foster it. In a strictly personal way, someone, by a free and generous decision, can choose not to demand punishment (cf. Mt 5:44-46), even if it is quite legitimately demanded by society and its justice system. However, it is not possible to proclaim a “blanket reconciliation” in an effort to bind wounds by decree or to cover injustices in a cloak of oblivion. Who can claim the right to forgive in the name of others? It is moving to see forgiveness shown by those who are able to leave behind the harm they suffered, but it is also humanly understandable in the case of those who cannot. In any case, forgetting is never the answer.
- The Shoah must not be forgotten. It is “the enduring symbol of the depths to which human evil can sink when, spurred by false ideologies, it fails to recognize the fundamental dignity of each person, which merits unconditional respect regardless of ethnic origin or religious belief”. As I think of it, I cannot help but repeat this prayer: “Lord, remember us in your mercy. Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of having despised and destroyed our own flesh which you formed from the earth, to which you gave life with your own breath of life. Never again, Lord, never again!”.
- Nor must we forget the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once again, “I pay homage to all the victims, and I bow before the strength and dignity of those who, having survived those first moments, for years afterward bore in the flesh immense suffering, and in their spirit seeds of death that drained their vital energy… We cannot allow present and future generations to lose the memory of what happened. It is a memory that ensures and encourages the building of a more fair and fraternal future”. Neither must we forget the persecutions, the slave trade and the ethnic killings that continue in various countries, as well as the many other historical events that make us ashamed of our humanity. They need to be remembered, always and ever anew. We must never grow accustomed or inured to them.
- Nowadays, it is easy to be tempted to turn the page, to say that all these things happened long ago and we should look to the future. For God’s sake, no! We can never move forward without remembering the past; we do not progress without an honest and unclouded memory. We need to “keep alive the flame of collective conscience, bearing witness to succeeding generations to the horror of what happened”, because that witness “awakens and preserves the memory of the victims, so that the conscience of humanity may rise up in the face of every desire for dominance and destruction”. The victims themselves – individuals, social groups or nations – need to do so, lest they succumb to the mindset that leads to justifying reprisals and every kind of violence in the name of the great evil endured. For this reason, I think not only of the need to remember the atrocities, but also all those who, amid such great inhumanity and corruption, retained their dignity and, with gestures small or large, chose the part of solidarity, forgiveness and fraternity. To remember goodness is also a healthy thing.
Forgiving but not forgetting
- Forgiving does not mean forgetting. Or better, in the face of a reality that can in no way be denied, relativized or concealed, forgiveness is still possible. In the face of an action that can never be tolerated, justified or excused, we can still forgive. In the face of something that cannot be forgotten for any reason, we can still forgive. Free and heartfelt forgiveness is something noble, a reflection of God’s own infinite ability to forgive. If forgiveness is gratuitous, then it can be shown even to someone who resists repentance and is unable to beg pardon.
- Those who truly forgive do not forget. Instead, they choose not to yield to the same destructive force that caused them so much suffering. They break the vicious circle; they halt the advance of the forces of destruction. They choose not to spread in society the spirit of revenge that will sooner or later return to take its toll. Revenge never truly satisfies victims. Some crimes are so horrendous and cruel that the punishment of those who perpetrated them does not serve to repair the harm done. Even killing the criminal would not be enough, nor could any form of torture prove commensurate with the sufferings inflicted on the victim. Revenge resolves nothing.
- This does not mean impunity. Justice is properly sought solely out of love of justice itself, out of respect for the victims, as a means of preventing new crimes and protecting the common good, not as an alleged outlet for personal anger. Forgiveness is precisely what enables us to pursue justice without falling into a spiral of revenge or the injustice of forgetting.
- When injustices have occurred on both sides, it is important to take into clear account whether they were equally grave or in any way comparable. Violence perpetrated by the state, using its structures and power, is not on the same level as that perpetrated by particular groups. In any event, one cannot claim that the unjust sufferings of one side alone should be commemorated. The Bishops of Croatia have stated that, “we owe equal respect to every innocent victim. There can be no racial, national, confessional or partisan differences”.
- I ask God “to prepare our hearts to encounter our brothers and sisters, so that we may overcome our differences rooted in political thinking, language, culture and religion. Let us ask him to anoint our whole being with the balm of his mercy, which heals the injuries caused by mistakes, misunderstandings and disputes. And let us ask him for the grace to send us forth, in humility and meekness, along the demanding but enriching path of seeking peace”.
Given in Assisi, at the tomb of Saint Francis, on 3 October, Vigil of the Feast of the Saint, in the year 2020, the eighth of my Pontificate.
- Message for the 2020 World Day of Peace (8 December 2019), 2: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 December 2019, p. 8.
-  EPISCOPAL CONFERENCE OF THE CONGO, Message au Peuple de Dieu et aux femmes et aux hommes de bonne volonté (9 May 2018).
- Address at the National Reconciliation Encunter, Villavicencio, Colombia (8 September 2017): AAS 109 (2017), 1063-1064, 1066.
-  Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 14: AAS 83 (1991), 810.
- Homily at Mass for the Progress of Peoples, Maputo, Mozambique (6 September 2019): L’Osservatore Romano, 7 September 2019, p. 8.
- Arrival Ceremony, Colombo, Sri Lanka (13 January 2015): L’Osservatore Romano, 14 January 2015, p. 7.
- Meeting with the Children of the “Bethany Centre” and Representatives of other Charitable Centres of Albania, Tirana, Albania (21 September 2014): Insegnamenti II, 2 (2014), 288.
- Video Message to the TED Conference in Vancouver (26 April 2017): L’Osservatore Romano, 27 April 2017, p. 7.
-  PIUS XI, Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno (15 May 1931): AAS 23 (1931), 213.
-  Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (24 November 2013), 228: AAS 105 (2013), 1113.
- Meeting with the Civil Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps, Riga, Latvia (24 September 2018): L’Osservatore Romano, 24-25 September 2018, p. 7.
- Arrival Ceremony, Tel Aviv, Israel (25 May 2014): Insegnamenti II, 1 (2014), 604.
- Visit to the Yad Vashem Memorial, Jerusalem (26 May 2014): AAS 106 (2014), 228.
- Address at the Peace Memorial, Hiroshima, Japan (24 November 2019): L’Osservatore Romano, 25-26 November 2019, p. 8.
- Message for the 2020 World Day of Peace (8 December 2019), 2: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 December 2019, p. 8.
-  CROATIAN BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE, Letter on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the End of the Second World War (1 May 1995).
- Homily, Amman, Jordan (24 May 2014): Insegnamenti II, 1 (2014), 593.
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