Xavier Garí de Barbarà & Álvaro Mellado Domínguez. No one doubts that we are living in a grave moment for the world. The Covid-19 pandemic is going to produce a large number of deaths throughout the world, generating an extreme health emergency in addition to social isolation in many areas and an economic crisis without parallel. International peace and security are also in play as demonstrated by Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the UN, who recently called for a global cease fire. The management of this crisis is hampered at the global level by the lack of consensus and solidarity which is so necessary in these times. Nevertheless, there is hope as demonstrated by the initiative for a global health response to the Coronavirus, led by WHO, together with governments, international organizations, foundations and private businesses, which is searching for vaccines and a way to allow world-wide access to them without leaving anyone behind.
In times of severe emergencies like the current one, there are those who act differently than the rest of the authorities and world leaders. Without charging blindly at the situation that has been created, Pope Francis has reacted with frankness, communicated with transparency and related with humility. In these weeks he has accompanied the suffering world in a way which expresses closeness and profound empathy. That was the case of the solitary Urbi et Orbe in St. Peter’s Square at the beginning of the pandemic. The Pope enlarged his public presence in order to give a word of comfort, to share the physical confinement and to show the nearness of God. His spirit is preferentially with the vulnerable, those who are hospitalized and the suffering along with those who have placed themselves on the front line to help the most affected. His constant attitude is not to turn his back on reality nor to close himself in his own isolation (although that was recommended due to his age and health). This could also be seen in his unusual interview by videocall with Jordi Évole, the reporter. Once again, his were words of closeness, of hope and encouragement for everyone, believers and non-believers. And once again he did it through his simplicity and integrity from a deeply prophetic spirit. That is what we can call the Spirit of Peace.
The Spirit of Peace in world crises before COVID
Throughout the 20th Century there have been dramatic humanitarian crises and in facing them the popes at the time gave similar responses. At the turning point that was the First World War, Pope Benedict XV reacted with a prophetic attitude. He wrote two encyclicals concerning peace (Ad Beatissimi  and Pacem Dei Munus ). Especially in the first of these, the Pope gave witness to the Spirit of Peace in a dark hour for Europe. His voice was not only a prophetic denunciation, but was also one of accompaniment in the pain of all the victims of such a cruel war. Among his different initiatives, he promoted Christmas truces which were never accepted by the government leaders. Nevertheless, at Christmas, 1914, there was a single case. It was undertaken by the soldiers in the trenches near Lille (in the north of France) at the urging of women in England, Germany and Austria who had written letters promoting it. The Pope backed the effort of the women and the result was the truce of 1914. Although it only lasted one night, it made possible a peacefulness on the battlefield between the two opposing armies. This historic fact is a visible sign that the Spirit rises up from below and not only comes down from the hierarchy.
Apart from that, the great work of Benedict XV was his coordination with the Red Cross to initiate several important activities: (a) he achieved the repatriation of prisoners of war; (b) he facilitated the delivery of 50,000 letters between prisoners and their families; (c) he arranged for the convalescence in Swiss hospitals and sanatoriums of 26,000 prisoners of war and 3,000 civilian detainees; and finally (d) he made possible the commutation of death penalties for civilians who had been condemned by war tribunals. On the other hand, he instituted the Day of the Migrant which arose out of the drama of millions of Italians who were forced to emigrate abroad around 1914. The day is celebrated into the present day.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the new pope is Pius XII who had been nuncio in Germany and later Secretary of State. From the time of his election as pope, Pius XII lived through very difficult moments of dictatorship, war and genocide, but his message was always about peace for Europe and solidarity with the victims. He demonstrated a decisive attitude in spite of the indefensibility of the Vatican, surrounded territorially as it was by the Italian Fascist regime. He was also the cause of hostility on the part of the Nazi authorities because of his positions. Neither of these threats caused the Pope to be silent. He always prioritized the defense of the persecuted while condemning violence and assassinations. There are various facts that demonstrate this decisive and strategic conduct, especially beginning with messages of prophetic denunciation: the message of August, 1939, calling for peace and saying no to war a week before the outbreak of the war itself; in 1940, when the Pope ordered the Holy Office to publish a Declaration in L’Osservatore Romano that condemned euthanasia which was at the roots of the laws for sterilizing and euthanizing non-Aryans; and thirdly, the radio message broadcast at Christmas, 1942, in which he denounced the crime against thousands of people who, because of their nationality or race, were “destined for a progressive annihilation” (when several months before there had been held the Wannsee Conference at which the Nazi regime had approved the “Final Solution” for the extermination of the Jews of Europe).
Consistently with his messages, Pope Pius XII took on a very firm commitment to save the greatest number of lives he could. The most surprising conduct, and the one that required a risky infrastructure, was the clandestine network to save Jews that penetrated into Germany itself. Also, in the Vatican and the extraterritorial properties of the Holy See throughout Rome, the Pope promoted important undertakings like opening 53 monasteries to protect Jews, making it possible that some could dress as priests to hide in the Pontifical Lombard Seminary, and authorizing something unheard of by the extension of false baptismal certificates for Jews so that they would be considered Catholics. All of this led to the salvation of a total of 6288 Jews between these and other actions which he began or with which he collaborated. Nevertheless, Pius XII not only dedicated himself to the protection of the Jews but he also committed himself to the local Roman people. In the summer of 1943, the Pontiff left the Vatican twice during the bombardments of Rome in order to get out to the places affected even though, in one of the cases, the bombardment had not yet ended. His goal was to be together with the victims and in solidarity with the human suffering. Both Benedict XV and Pius XII allowed themselves to be governed by this Spirit of Peace, accompanying and coming closer to the victims, as in our days in the same way the Spirit has been passed to Pope Francis.
The call of the Spirit in Pope Francis in the time of COVID-19
Pope Francis, in his message this year about living Holy Week in the time of COVID-19, demonstrates the presence of the Spirit incarnated in a world that is suffering, in order to give hope and peace to its victims. Francis calls for unity and for caring for all human beings, recognizing the real difficulties in which humanity finds itself. Families are living confined to their houses, with children without school and relatives who are affected and often alone. Nevertheless, the prophetic dimension of the Spirit is seen in his gestures and messages that go directly to the most vulnerable: the elderly, people who live alone, prisoners, the homeless and all men and women who live with fear of the future (for their jobs and facing the damage of a crisis in their domestic income). Francis also carries in his heart those who risk themselves by giving themselves over to their jobs with great commitment, like health workers, those involved in protecting others and workers in essential services.
The gestures and messages of the Pope come from the Spirit of Peace, especially evident in his spontaneous reactions during a speech, often apart from what he has written down. From his deep empathy arises the call to the world to make use of the creative power of love. He concretizes this by recommending with gentleness how to show tender gestures to those who suffer the most. For this unique Easter he suggests a special way of living this out. He proposes that people pray, cultivate silence and prepare themselves for a time of conversion after the pandemic. This change would give a special significance to the death and resurrection of Jesus. As the popes before him did in moments of gravity and humanitarian crises, Francis has allowed himself to be carried by the Spirit and he invites believers and non-believers to work, as Jesus did, to bring Peace in difficult times.
The witness of the Pope promoting the Spirit of Peace does not stay on the plane of the individual or of the family. Instead it passes on to the international level to deal with the situation of the most vulnerable. A concern expressed by the Pope during this time has been about the serious lack of unity among the European governments in confronting this crisis. It was surprising to see this confirmed in the Urbi et Orbi of Easter Sunday in which he appealed also to peace and humaneness for people in grave situations like the refugees in Greece and Turkey, the victims of the wars in Syria and Yemen, the dead and wounded in terrorist attacks in Africa, or the tensions in Israel and Palestine, in Venezuela, Mozambique and Ukraine. In an unprecedented message, the Pope called for the forgiveness of the debt of the poorest countries and he urged the diminution of the arms trade and the use of that money to save lives. Nevertheless, the Pope does not limit himself to his words. He also puts them into action. He has created a Task Force to respond to COVID-19, mobilizing various departments and pontifical academies, and he has structured it into five working groups: one for a response to the current emergency, another dedicated to reconstruction after COVID-19, another for Communications, another for Relations to States and Institutions, and the last for the financing of the different working groups.
Pope Francis has decided to begin his response in those countries that are most vulnerable to COVID-19 and where the Catholic Church has a presence. He has created an Emergency Fund to help those affected by the Coronavirus, initially given 700,000 Euros, to be utilized through the Pontifical Mission Works in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This Fund does not pretend to be the sole responsibility of the Pope. So, the Buddhist monk Ashin Nyanissara from Myanmar has added to it the sum of $10,000. His attitude has given witness as a sign of the compassion which is common among religions, in order to promote solidarity in charity. This presence of the Spirit among religions has also been evidenced in an unusual interreligious prayer in Jerusalem against the coronavirus with Muslim, Jewish, Druse and Christian representatives. All of these initiatives show that the Spirit of Peace transcends Christianity in order to bring together a union of humankind which could be considered a clear call to governments to act with the same unity of action.
In this last century the Spirit of Peace has made itself present in grave moments of history, by means of relevant actors like the Popes in the world wars and in this pandemic. This Spirit of Peace is not the personal motivating factor of one pontiff, but rather a radical presence in times of pain, in victims and in the compassionate response of humankind. The Pope is not alone in responding to this presence of the Spirit. Rather he is called to contribute in the same way that more and more people in the world are responding. Outstanding examples are all those anonymous people who are helping family members and neighbors, who take care of vulnerable individuals, who participate in gestures of solidarity like applauding health workers and of the health workers themselves who are risking their lives. There are innumerable initiatives to which the citizens of the world commit themselves. This Spirit of Peace starts out in people’s hearts and finds one more ally in the Pope, just as the Jesuit Victor Codino says in one of his books entitled “The Spirit of the Lord acts from the bottom up.”
[Image from Vida Nueva Digital]