From the beginning of his pontificate the Argentine pope has given particular attention to “the peripheries” of the world. Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its capital city Sarajevo, is one of them. Life is hard there. The economy is weak, unemployment is high and ethnic tensions are never far from the surface in this country of around 3.8 million people, sandwiched between Serbia and Croatia.
Pope Francis arrived in Sarajevo on June 6, as “a messenger of peace.” In a video-message on the eve of his 11-hour visit he extended greetings to “all” the inhabitants of the city and of Bosnia-Herzegovina and said he is coming “to confirm the faith of Catholics, to support ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and especially to encourage peaceful coexistence in your country.”
Francis is keenly aware of the threat to peace and social harmony because of the unstable situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the fact that reconciliation has never really been achieved since the end of the war between the members of its different ethnic-religious communities. That conflict, inflamed by nationalist politics that exploited ethnic and religious bonds, caused the deaths of 100,000 people and spawned ethnic cleansing which forced two million people to leave their homes. 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 flee; many never returned.
Sixty-five thousand people applauded with passion in Sarajevo’s Kosevo Stadium when Pope Francis declared, “War never again!” It was the most powerfully emotional moment during the Mass celebrated in the stadium by Papa Franjo—as the people call him here—under a blazing sun and surrounded by green hills.
Francis faces problems with 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.
“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 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 war 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!”