Sixty-five thousand people applauded vigorously and with passion in Sarajevo’s Kosevo Stadium when Pope Francis, in his homily, declared “War never again!”
It was the most powerfully emotional moment during the mass celebrated in the stadium by Papa Franjo – as they call him here, under a blazing sun, and surrounded by green hills. It was the only time they applauded during his homily; for the rest they listened in total silence as a sign of great respect. His words went to the heart of the violence that had rocked this city and Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 and wreaked havoc with their lives.
The spontaneous applause revealed their deeper emotions and touched many painful memories that are still very much alive eighteen years after the end of that tragic war which disrupted the lives of the people of this land. The war caused 100,000 deaths (the numerous cemeteries in the city testify to this) and displaced 2 million people (more than half of the population). During that terrible conflict the number of Catholics in Sarajevo decreased from 530,000 to 125,000, while throughout Bosnia-Hercegovina 450,000 Catholics were forced to leave their homes; many never returned.
Francis is a pope who faces problems with a disarming directness and extraordinary humility. That was evident in his homily. Speaking from the heart, in language everyone could understand, he talked of war and peace, yesterday in Sarajevo and today in many other parts of the world. And he delivered a strong message of encouragement and hope to a people who had ears to hear and hearts ready to receive it.
“Peace is God’s dream, his plan for humanity, for history, for all creation”, he told his attentive audience and the much larger audience of Muslims and Christians that were following the whole celebration by live television in this country where over 40 percent of the population are Muslim, 31 percent Orthodox, and less than 15 percent Catholic.
Peace is also “a plan which always meets opposition from men and from the evil one”, Francis stated. “Even in our time – he noted - the desire for peace and the commitment to build peace collide against the reality of many armed conflicts presently affecting our world. They are a kind of third world being fought piecemeal, and in the context of global communication, we sense an atmosphere of war.”
Pope Francis highlighted the fact that “some wish to incite and foment this atmosphere deliberately, mainly those who want conflict between different cultures and societies, and those who speculate on wars for the purpose of selling arms.”
He recalled that “war means children, women and the elderly in refugee camps; it means forced displacement of peoples; it means destroyed houses, streets and factories; it means, above all, countless shattered lives.” Looking out at the vast crowd from the lectern from which he was speaking, he added, “You know this well, having experienced it here: how much suffering, how much destruction, how much pain!”
Then moving from war to peace, he connected powerfully with the crowd when he declared, “Today, dear brothers and sisters, the cry of God’s people goes up once again from this city, the cry of all men and women of good will: war never again!” Their applause was deafening. It was a particularly strong signal to those politicians who still exploit ethnic and religious divisions.
The Argentine pope went onto speak of peace and reminded those present, and the wider world, that the words of Jesus – “Blessed are the peacemakers” – are “like a ray of sunshine piercing the clouds.” Working for peace “requires passion, patience, experience and tenacity”, he said. It is “a work to be carried forward each day, step by step, without ever growing tired”.
Working for peace is also “a work of justice”, he stated. Not a justice that is “proclaimed, imagined, planned” but rather “a justice put into practice, lived out.” And “the ultimate fulfillment of justice is love”.
The Jesuit pope knows that working for peace and justice in this land has not been easy over recent years due to the deep rooted tensions linked to ethnicity and/or religious belonging, and to the fragile economy that has left 67% of young people without a job, and driven many of them to emigrate.
In his homily, Francis sought to encourage them to follow the commandment of love because “when, by the grace of God, we truly follow this commandment, how things change! Because we ourselves change! Those whom I looked upon as my enemy really have the same face as I do, the same heart, the same soul. We have the same Father in heaven. True justice, then, is doing to others what I would want them to do to me, to my people”.
He told this crowd, that included many thousands of young people from all parts of the country, that peace does not only depend on human endeavor alone, it is in essence “a gift from God” because “with his Spirit, he can imprint these attitudes (that are conducive to peace) in our hearts and in our flesh, and make us true instruments of his peace.”
When Francis arrived to celebrate the Eucharist one could not but note the stark contrast with the one celebrated here in the same stadium by John Paul II in 1997. Then the city bore countless visible signs of the war, an icy wind was blowing, snow was falling and the Polish pope's hands shivered with cold. It was all very different today; the sun blazed down and there was a decidedly festive atmosphere in the crowd. They cheered ecstatically when Francis arrived in the popemobile and chanted “Papa mi te volimo” (“Pope we love you”) as he drove among them on his way to the altar. As he passed by he could see people in the crowd waving flags, not only those of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also several from war-torn Ukraine, and some from neighboring Croatia and Macedonia. There were Polish flags too and also one each from mainland China and Ireland. The festive spirit was evident also when they sang hymns with gusto and raised their hands in prayer during the mass.
Francis arrived in the stadium after meeting the Presidency of the Republic, civic authorities and the diplomatic corps. At the presidential palace, the Chairman of the Presidency, Mladen Ivanic welcomed him saying that throughout the world “you are perceived as a religious leader that is close to the common man, a religious leader who promotes in an essential way simplicity and tolerance towards everyone and towards the one who is different.”
He told the Pope that it is “not easy”; indeed it is “a big challenge” in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to build a society that is the measure of man and respects religion. But “now is a new time for understanding and reconciliation, a time for collaboration” and a time “to achieve full equality for all the citizens in every part of the country.” He hailed the Pope’s visit as an important contribution to all this, and indirectly asked him to help his country enter the European Union.
Francis, in his speech, recalled the bloody history of Sarajevo in the 20th century, but rejoiced that today it has again become “a place of dialogue and peaceful coexistence.” Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina “have a special significance for Europe and for the whole world” he said, because for centuries people of different religions and ethnic groups lived together here in peace and harmony, making it a crossroads of cultures.
In the light of the recent past, Francis advocated a culture of encounter and told them that what is needed now is “the building of new bridges, while maintaining and restoring older ones, thus ensuring avenues of communication that are efficient, sure and fraternal. We need to communicate with each other, to discover the gifts of each person, to promote that which unites us, and to regard our differences as an opportunity to grow in mutual respect.”
He reminded them that “patience and trust are called for in such dialogue, permitting individuals, families and communities to hand on the values of their own culture and welcome the good which comes from others’ experiences.” And in doing so, he said, “even the deep wounds of the recent past will be set aside, so that the future may be looked to with hope.”
Pope Francis told the country’s political leaders that “in order to successfully oppose the barbarity of those who would make of every difference the occasion and pretext for further unspeakable violence, we need to recognize the fundamental values of human communities, values in the name of which we can and must cooperate, build and dialogue, pardon and grow; this will allow different voices to unite in creating a melody of sublime nobility and beauty, instead of the fanatical cries of hatred.”
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, he said, “responsible politicians are called to the important task of being the first servants of their communities, taking actions which safeguard above all the fundamental rights of the human person, among which the right to religious freedom stands out.” Furthermore - he said - they must work to ensure “that all citizens be equal both before the law and its implementation, whatever their ethnic, religious or geographical affiliation.” That is the way to build “a more peaceful and just society”, he stated.