ROME – In the first five years of his pontificate, Pope Francis has proven to be a man committed to many things: From opening the Church to those in the outskirts, to putting the Church at the center of the fight against social inequality while insisting it must not become an NGO.
There’s also another primordial need felt by Francis, which is to make every effort towards peace — urging other religions to do the same, and condemning every kind of violence perpetrated in the name of God.
While peace is hardly a novelty as a cause for a pope, Francis has put it at the forefront of his agenda, speaking often about a piecemeal World War being fought while societies watch passively, with ongoing armed conflicts in every inhabited continent.
On Nov. 10-11, at his request, the Vatican took the peace push a step further, organizing an international symposium titled “Prospects for a World Free from Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament.” The all-star list of participants included UN and NATO officials, representatives of a handful of nuclear powers including Russia and the United States, other countries such as South Korea and Iran, and 11 Nobel Peace awardees.
The group of laureates presented Francis with a statement in support of a recent United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was adopted in July.
In their statement, they say that the treaty was the result of the concerted action of civil society, religious communities, international organizations and the states “that fervently desire a nuclear-free world that resulted in the successful nuclear ban treaty negotiations at the UN.”
The ongoing work of these actors, the Nobel winners wrote, will open the way for nuclear states to finally relinquish weapons “capable of obliterating life as we know it in the blink of an eye. It will not be an easy task, but it is possible.”
Crux spoke with some of the laureates and participants in the conference, focusing on the role religions can play in urging global powers not only towards nuclear deterrence, but ultimately, disarmament.
Bangladeshi Muhammad Younus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, stressed the contribution Francis could make, saying it’s “very important that he has taken up” nuclear disarmament.
“The whole world looks up to him, because of the moral authority that the Church has, and he’s using it by not staying silent,” Younus said.
When Francis spoke about climate change, Younus told Crux, the world listened, and he had tremendous power in bringing people together on that issue.
“Now he’s taken a stand against nuclear arms,” the microfinance pioneer said. “Hopefully, he’ll be able to bring the world together on this too.”
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) lauded Francis and the Church for the “enormous amount of support” they have given in favor of the cause.
She noted the Holy See was one of the first nations to sign and ratify the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, an agreement in which ICAN played a key role, which made them 2017 Nobel Peace leaurates.
“Pope Francis’s leadership, and the possibility he has of mobilizing Catholics all around the world, is very important,” she told Crux.
At noon Rome time on Friday, conference participants got the opportunity to meet Francis, who told them nuclear weapons betray a “mentality of fear.”
Fihn had a request for the Argentine pontiff: To ask Catholics around the globe to use Sunday Dec. 10, the day on which ICAN is receiving the Nobel Prize, “as an opportunity to hold a prayer for ending the nuclear threat and in support of the treaty.”
But the responsibility the world’s religions have in building peace, participants said, goes well beyond the Catholic Church.
“I think it’s very important that all the actors come together,” Fihn said, adding that faith-based communities have an enormous mobilizing power.
“You can reach so many people through religion,” she said. “Once the Churches and religious communities get organized, it’s a huge momentum and you can really change things.”
Argentine Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, whose Nobel came in 1980, said “the spirituality of every religion has to be present for the survival of the planet.”
“Today, we must have a mentality, a vision, a thought that is holistic, where everything is integrated.”
There’s a need to “reestablish the equilibrium” between peoples and nations, based on mutual respect, Perez Esquivel told Crux.
He also said that religions, working together through interreligious dialogue and ecumenism, “have much to offer in this reestablishing of the equilibrium and building peace.”
“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but a permanent dynamic of relation between the peoples,” he said, adding that this equilibrium is not only among human beings, but also with mother earth and nature.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, head of the Vatican office putting the conference together, told Crux there are members of various religions among the participants, representing the fact that around the world, way beyond Vatican walls, religious leaders and organizations have made peace a priority.
Yet, he said, “you always need someone to take the initiative, and doing so, you can bring others on board.”
During his speech on Friday, Francis asked the world to listen to the “prophetic voice” of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two Japanese islands decimated by the United States with two atomic bombs, an action which precipitated the end of WWII.
One of these voices was in the room, Masako Wada, who survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and has since become a prominent disarmament activist.
Wada was born in 1943, so as per her own words she was too young to remember what happened on that day. However, she grew up hearing the stories from her mother, who never forgot what she saw. Wada’s mother died of stomach cancer caused by the explosion. She was in the hospital 28 times for problems related to it.
On the day the bomb hit, close to noon, she’d been playing outside because it was a very hot day. But not long before, her mother had asked her to come inside for lunch. It saved her life.
Her family lived a mile outside of Nagasaki, and even though the windows of the home were destroyed, the building protected them from the blast. She was unconscious for a time, and when she woke up, there was a pile of mud and dust 12 inches high inside the house, which was surrounded by a mist-like cloud of orange-colored smoke.
A Christian herself, she said that people of faith, in whatever position, have to be leaders in favor of the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.
Since Wada is one of the few people alive in the world today who can say they survived a nuclear blast, Crux asked her what she’d tell those who still believe nuclear weapons are part of the solution. She said they need to be “stigmatized.”
“They’re immoral, unethical, illegal and evil,” Wada said. “That’s what I’d tell them, that’s why we’re raising our voice and that of normal people.”
Claire Giangravè contributed to this report.