1 JANUARY, 2002, 11.00AM

Today World Day of Peace is being celebrated in the shadow of the many and dramatic events of 2001 – the outrages of September 11 in the United States, the continuing trauma of world poverty and world hunger, floods of refugees and asylum-seekers, a growing contempt for human life, the widespread breakdown of the family. At first sight evil may appear to have the upper hand and the final say in the affairs of the world. Today, however, the Church dares to assert that evil does not have the final say in human affairs. As Pope John Paul says in his message for World Peace Day: “The merciful providence of God knows how to touch the most hardened of hearts and bring forth good fruit, even from what seems utterly barren”.

The Pope makes it clear that there is right to defend oneself against terrorist organisations. But the means must be morally defensible. The guilty must be correctly identified. There must be a commitment to relieving situations of oppression in order that the claims which terrorists make to justify their actions may be completely and utterly nullified. When terrorist organisations use their own followers, the Pope says, as weapons to be launched against defenceless and unsuspecting people, they show their contempt for human life.

Today the Church’s “no” to war and to armed conflict is a “yes” to peace – a “yes” to negotiations, a “yes” to the possibility of reconciliation. Today, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, dares the Church to have the courage to commit itself once again, humbly and patiently to the search for peace. It is a “yes” to the search, through dialogue, for peace, a search, which has gone on, is going on, will go on and must go on.

The light, which the Prophet Isaiah promised to God’s people in Israel 700 years before Christ, came into this world 2,000 years ago. But as the Gospel of John reminds us the darkness did not comprehend the light. Yes, the angels and the shepherds understood, as they rejoiced in the birth of Him, whom Isaiah had called, Prince of Peace. They proclaimed the message, which the whole world wanted to hear – peace on Earth. The Prophet Isaiah spoke of all the gear of battle, every cloak rolled in blood, being burned. He talked about the nations hammering their swords into ploughshares and hammering their spears into sickles. It is a magnificent vision for the world.


But this vision of the Prince of Peace is a task, which is, as yet, far from complete, even here in Northern Ireland. This is why the message of the Synod of Bishops last October to our political and economic leaders is important: “May the common good of all persons and people be your motive for action. We ask you to remember those corners of the world, which receive no media coverage and where our brothers and sisters are dying from famine and lack of medicine and to remember that the persistence of gross inequalities between nations is a threat to peace.”


Here in Ireland a fragile peace process continues to make progress. Most of the time the discussion remains fixed on the negotiations of governments and politicians. As a result it is comfortably removed from the responsibility of ordinary citizens. Of course an agreed political settlement and a genuine cessation of violence are fundamental. But they are only just that – fundamental – that is, providing the foundation, not the completed structure of peace. At the social level the issues of reconciliation and sectarianism remain and will have to be addressed. Yes the search for peace is a process but it is also a task – the task of building the completed structure of a reconciled society at all levels.


Building a reconciled society means building a new relationship between estranged parties. Let’s say that a married couple separates and are then reconciled. They come to a new sense of the hurt and pain they have caused each other and they forgive. But the reconciliation will last only if the wrongs have been set right and forgiveness has been offered and accepted. So reconciliation is a process of building a new relationship with the new party. It is a process of understanding the hurt and pain and grievance.


Reconciliation implies forgiveness – a topic addressed by Pope John Paul II in his message for today when he says, “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness’. This has particular importance for the future of Northern Ireland. In the search for peace the emphasis has always been on justice. However, concerns for a reconciled community are important and the healing of relations between the victim and the agents or perpetrators of injustice are essential. The pillars of true peace are justice and that form of love which is forgiveness, the Pope says today.

Reconciliation is a task – a task of building a new relationship with the estranged party, a relationship of understanding – understanding the hurt and the pain and the grievances.

Reconciliation implies forgiveness – a topic addressed by Pope John Paul II in his message for today when he says, “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness’. In the search for peace the emphasis has always been on justice. Justice is the priority. However, concerns for a reconciled community and for the restoration or healing of relations between the victim and the agents or perpetrators of injustice, are very important too.


Forgiveness is not easy. Too often we are locked in our past and unable to break out of the cycle of guilt and shame. Yet power to break that cycle is proclaimed to be the work of Jesus Christ. He came to free us from the burden of our past and give hope for the future. We call Jesus, Saviour of the world, and yet we often assume that the world cannot be saved but is doomed to perpetuating injustice and oppression and practice dishonesty and ruthless selfishness.

We call Jesus Prince of Peace and yet do we not restrict His peace to peace of heart and peace of mind? Too often we assume that the cries from the crib and the Cross leave us powerless while nations will continue to make war and to stockpile arms. Are we underestimating the power of the Prince of Peace?


Forgiveness begins in the human heart. It is a decision of the heart to go against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil. Christ gave us the perfect example of forgiveness when, on the Cross, He prayed, ‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23: 34)

When we do wrong we experience our own human weakness. In a moment of weakness we decide to take a chance and do something foolish. If we are caught well then we want others to be lenient with us. Why not therefore do towards others what we want them to do towards us?

Jesus freed people from their past, for example, Zachaeus, so that they could enter into friendship with each other. The Jews had a very bad relationship with the Samaritans. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus held up a Samaritan as a model of someone who is most faithful to God. This set the people free from their prejudices against Samaritans. In all of this the forgiveness of sin was crucial. It was above all through forgiveness that Jesus seems to have liberated men and women from the burden of their past.


Just in case we become overawed by the task, let’s never forget that peace is, first and foremost, a gift – a gift of God. Indeed the peace process is also a gift of God, a gift entrusted to human hands, hands that are weak. Therefore to pray for peace in our country is essential. To pray for peace is to ask God’s forgiveness for our own sins. It is also to beg the courage and the strength to forgive those who have trespassed against us in the sure knowledge that real peace will be made possible only through forgiveness.

The recent unhappy events in North Belfast reminded me of a true story from the USA. In 1960 in New Orleans an eminent American child-psychiatrist, Robert Cole, saw for himself the massive hostility of white parents to the desegregation of that city’s public school. One of the black children, six year old Ruby Bridges, attended her school alone. Her teacher reported that Ruby’s lips were moving as she passed the white hecklers on the footpath. Asked by him what she was saying out there she replied, “I was saying prayers for them”. “Ruby, you pray for the people there?” “Oh yes”. “Why do you do that?” “Because they need praying for”. “And why you especially?” “Because if you are going through what they are doing to you, you are the one who should be praying for them”. And then she quoted what she had heard in Church. The Minister had said that Jesus went through a lot of trouble. He said about the people, who were caught in the trouble, “forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing”. Now here was little Ruby, in the 1960s, saying this about the people in the streets of New Orleans. The eminent psychiatrist was baffled. He finally came to the conclusion that forgiveness is a political possibility for many Americans black Christians because, for them, God is real.

May God be very real for all of us in 2002 and may we do a lot of praying for each other. May Mary, Queen of Peace and mother of the Prince of Peace, pray for us and support all our efforts for peace.