I have been thinking about Dan Berrigan lately.
I know what you’re thinking: “you and everyone else at a Jesuit institution.” But it’s not like that. Maybe it is because I was late to the Jesuit party (there were no Jesuits where I grew up in Ohio, so I missed out on older generation’s lore and legend), but I had only heard of the famed Berrigan brothers in passing. I had not heard of the Catonsville Nine, or of his time on the F.B.I’s most wanted list and his comical evasion from J. Edgar Hoover that preceded three years in prison and decades of peace activism.
Making up for lost time, I covered Berrigan’s funeral at St. Xavier Church in Manhattan after he died in April of last year. I walked out of the marble church into the rainy streets that morning with an overwhelming feeling that I had just witnessed the funeral Mass of a saint.
I also walked away with a glimpse into one generation’s peace movement that I had thought was already dead, back to wake one of their heroes. It remains unclear whether a new one will take their place of prominence in American activism.
I was thinking about Berrigan on Wednesday when President Donald J. Trump and Pope Francis finally met face to face. I am also asking the question on many people’s minds: Will that meeting matter?
“Is Pope Francis the Trump Whisperer?” asks Emma Greene at The Atlantic. Papal meetings with heads of states are regular, routine and formulaic, but this one carried so much expectation that much of the Catholic media felt obliged to remind everyone that there probably wouldn’t be fireworks. But these are unsettled times, and the routine of ritual makes us all the more aware of the drama that surrounds us.
So it seemed more important than usual when Francis presented Mr. Trump with an olive tree and told him, “I am giving you this because I hope you may be this olive tree to make peace.” The president responded: “We can use peace.” Francis also gifted the president a copy of his message for World Peace Day 2017 and told him, “I signed it personally for you.”
Afterward, Francis went to his weekly Wednesday audience, where he reminded the gathered that “God does not like to be loved the way a warlord would like, dragging his people to victory, debasing them in the blood of his enemies”—which, after a meeting with someone who talks about “winners” and “losers” quite a bit, seemed like a coincidence begging to be made into something more.
Since it is Jesus who calls us out of fear and cynicism, I am praying that Pope Francis’ words have a lasting impact on the president.
Mr. Trump left the meeting tweeting, “I leave the Vatican more determined than ever to pursue PEACE in our world.” It was one of three consecutive tweets containing the word peace (twice in all caps).
Since it is Jesus who calls us out of fear and cynicism, I am praying that Pope Francis’ words have a lasting impact on the president. But I am also aware of the near-360-degree turn it would take in order to make this hope a reality.
On the eve of the meeting, Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and is a close adviser to the pope, pointed out a striking difference between the two leaders. He tweeted, “Pope Francis & Pres Trump reach out to Islam-world to exorcise it of rel. Violence. One offers peace of dialogue, the other security of arms.”
Mr. Trump had just been in Saudi Arabia, promising $110 billion in weapons. According to Amnesty International, that is $110 billion worth of “tanks, artillery, radar systems and, crucially, precision weaponry, previously blocked by President Obama over concerns that it would be used to kill and injure civilians in the war in neighboring Yemen.” If the only changes our government countenances are to the quantity and type of weapons we sell, we are likely to become even less able to track whose hands they end up in and whose bodies they will maim.
After the sarin gas attack in Syria that killed hundreds of people, including children, Pope Francis deplored the violence, prayed for the families and pressured global leaders to end the war. President Trump responded with Tomahawk missiles.
After the United States dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb, “The Mother of All Bombs,” on a village in Afghanistan, Francis was appalled. “I was ashamed when I heard the name,” he said.
“A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is going on?” And there is the saber-rattling with North Korea and Russia.
Peace does not inspire activism the way our identity politics do, at least not these days. It has been some time since we have seen a nationwide anti-war or anti-weapons march of hundreds of thousands of people, the way the Women’s March, the March for Science and the March for Life draw out people in droves.
Though the apathy of Americans (if not lawmakers) is periodically shaken by large-scale terror attacks or mass shootings, there are few efforts to curb the violence done on Americans by Americans. It is little wonder that our circle of compassion fails to expand to nameless brown bodies across the world, killed by bombs we have either dropped or made.
Peace is on the pope’s mind, and his pleas are not platitudes. “I won’t forget what you said,” President Trump said to Francis. If that’s true, then there’s a lot of work to do.