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Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 08, 2024
Pope Francis speaks during his annual meeting with diplomats accredited to the Holy See at the Vatican Jan. 8, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis devoted his New Year’s address to the ambassadors of the 184 countries that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See to discussing the pressing need for peace and an end to armed conflicts in today’s world. He also called for an end to what he called the “despicable” practice of surrogacy.

“The path to peace calls for respect for life, for every human life, starting with the life of the unborn child in the mother’s womb, which cannot be suppressed or turned into an object of trafficking,” the pope said. In this regard, he deplored “the practice of so-called surrogate motherhood” and called on the international community “to prohibit this practice universally.”

Pope Francis mentioned the word “peace” 27 times in the strongly worded, lengthy address, in which Francis again called for a ceasefire and an end to the wars in Gaza and in Ukraine. He said the wars are “indiscriminately striking the civilian population” and resulting in “war crimes.”

Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, 184 now have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Among the notable absentees are the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and North Korea.

Pope Francis deplored “the practice of so-called surrogate motherhood” and called on the international community “to prohibit this practice universally.”

Francis told the ambassadors, “Our world is witnessing a growing number of conflicts that are slowly turning what I have often called ‘a third world war fought piecemeal’ into a genuine global conflict.” In this context, he said, “it is the responsibility of the Holy See within the international community to be a prophetic voice and to appeal to consciences.”

“The events in Ukraine and Gaza are clear proof of this,” the pope said.

He told the ambassadors and their governments: “We must not forget that grave violations of international humanitarian law are war crimes, and that it is not sufficient to point them out, but also necessary to prevent them.”

Pope Francis called on the international community to step up its efforts to defend humanitarian law, telling the ambassadors:

“We need to realize more clearly that civilian victims are not ‘collateral damage’ but men and women, with names and surnames, who lose their lives. They are children who are orphaned and deprived of their future. They are individuals who suffer from hunger, thirst and cold, or are mutilated as an effect of the power of modern explosives. Were we to be able to look each of them in the eye, call them by name, and learn something of their personal history, we would see war for what it is: nothing other than an immense tragedy, a ‘useless slaughter,’ one that offends the dignity of every person on this earth.”

Then, seemingly referring to Israel’s war in Gaza, Francis said, “When one is dealing with the right to legitimate self-defense, it is indispensable to maintain a proportionate use of force.”

Speaking in Italian in the Hall of Benedictions, where the Israeli and Palestinian ambassadors were present, the pope spoke of his “deep concern” at what is happening “in Israel and Palestine.”

“All of us remain shocked by the Oct. 7 attack on the Israeli people, in which great numbers of innocent persons were horribly wounded, tortured, and murdered, and many taken hostage,” the pope said.

“I renew my condemnation of this act and of every instance of terrorism and extremism. This is not the way to resolve disputes between peoples; those disputes are only aggravated and cause suffering for everyone,” the pope said.

He recalled that the Oct. 7 attack “provoked a strong Israeli military response in Gaza that has led to the death of tens of thousands of Palestinians, mainly civilians, including many young people and children, and has caused an exceptionally grave humanitarian crisis and inconceivable suffering.”

Then addressing “all the parties” involved, Francis called for a cease-fire “on every front,” the release of the hostages being held in Gaza and the protection of “hospitals, schools and places of worship” in the war zone.

Then looking to “the day after” the war, Francis expressed his hope for a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine “as well as an internationally guaranteed special status for the City of Jerusalem.”

He noted that “the present conflict in Gaza further destabilizes a fragile and tension-filled region” and drew attention to the dire situation in Syria where its people are “living in a situation of economic and political instability aggravated by last February’s earthquake.” He appealed to the international community “to encourage the parties involved to undertake a constructive and serious dialogue and to seek new solutions so that the Syrian people need no longer suffer as a result of international sanctions.”

Francis then turned to the war in Ukraine, which he has tracked with great concern since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. The destructive war has caused immense suffering to the civilian population and displaced millions of Ukrainians. “Sadly, after nearly two years of large-scale war waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, the greatly desired peace has not yet managed to take root in minds and hearts, despite the great numbers of victims and the massive destruction,” he said.

He called for an end to this war, too, saying, “One cannot allow the persistence of a conflict that continues to metastasize, to the detriment of millions of persons.”

Pope Francis also appealed to the international community to seek a solution to the internal conflict in Myanmar, a country he visited in 2017, and not to neglect “the humanitarian emergency” of the Rohingya people.

Turning to Africa, he drew attention to “the suffering of millions of persons” in various sub-Saharan countries due to terrorism, climate change, military coups and corruption.

He pleaded for international efforts to bring peace to Sudan “where sadly after months of civil war no way out is in sight,” and to help the Sudanese refugees in Cameroon, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, which he visited last year.

The first Latin American pope noted that while “there are no open wars in the Americas,” there are nonetheless “serious tensions” between several countries, including Venezuela and Guyana. He expressed concern at “the troubling situation” in Nicaragua where “a protracted crisis with painful consequences” threatens Nicaraguan society as a whole, and in particular, the Catholic Church. Dozens of priests and bishops have been detained in the Central American country and others have been stripped of their citizenship and forced to live in exile.

Pope Francis called on governments to “pursue a policy of disarmament,” asking: “How many lives could be saved with the resources that today are misdirected to weaponry?”

He again denounced as “immoral” the “manufacturing and possessing nuclear weapons” and expressed his support for the resumption of the Iran nuclear deal.

The path to peace

“To pursue peace,” the pope said, “it is not enough simply to eliminate the implements of war; its root causes must be eradicated.” He listed several, including hunger and the exploitation of the environment and workers.

In his talk, Pope Francis also spoke about “the climate and environmental crisis” that was the topic of the COP28 conference in Dubai last month, which he regretted being unable to attend. He hailed the conference’s adoption of the final document as “an encouraging step forward” and said, “it shows that, in the face of today’s many crises, multilateralism can be renewed through the management of the global climate issue in a world where environmental, social and political problems are closely connected.” He said it became clear at COP28 that “the present decade is critical for dealing with climate change” and expressed his hope that what was adopted in Dubai will lead to “a decisive acceleration of the ecological transition” through “energy efficiency; renewable sources; the elimination of fossil fuels; and education in lifestyles that are less dependent on the latter.”

The pope again highlighted the humanitarian crisis linked to migration: “Wars, poverty, the mistreatment of our common home and the ongoing exploitation of its resources, which lead to natural disasters, also drive thousands of people to leave their homelands in search of a future of peace and security.” Faced with such an immense tragedy, he said, “we can easily end up closing our hearts, entrenching ourselves behind fears of an ‘invasion.’ We are quick to forget that we are dealing with people with faces and names.”

In confronting this challenge, Francis said, “no country should be left alone, nor can any country think of addressing the issue in isolation through more restrictive and repressive legislation adopted at times under pressure of fear or in pursuit of electoral consensus.”

He underlined that “the path to peace calls for respect for human rights, in accordance with the simple yet clear formulation contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose 75th anniversary we recently celebrated.” He lamented, however, “that in recent decades attempts have been made to introduce new rights that are neither fully consistent with those originally defined nor always acceptable” and “have led to instances of ideological colonization, in which gender theory plays a central role.” Francis denounced the latter as “extremely dangerous, since it cancels differences in its claim to make everyone equal.” Moreover, he said, “These instances of ideological colonization prove injurious and create divisions between states, rather than fostering peace.”

For the sake of peace, Francis said, “there is a need to recover the roots, the spirit and the values” that led to the creation of multilateral structures of diplomacy after the Second World War. “Organizations established to foster security, peace and cooperation are no longer capable of uniting all their members around one table,” he said.

Noting that there will be elections in many countries in 2024, the pope said, “It is important, then, that citizens, especially young people who will be voting for the first time, consider it one of their primary duties to contribute to the advancement of the common good through a free and informed participation in elections.”

Francis reminded the ambassadors that “the path to peace” also passes through interreligious dialogue, which “requires the protection of religious freedom and respect for minorities.” He lamented “that an increasing number of countries are adopting models of centralized control over religious freedom, especially by the massive use of technology.” In other places, “minority religious communities…risk extinction due to a combination of terrorism, attacks on their cultural heritage and more subtle measures such as the proliferation of anti-conversion laws, the manipulation of electoral rules and financial restrictions.”

He also expressed concern at the rise in acts of antisemitism in recent months and declared, “This scourge must be eliminated from society, especially through education in fraternity and acceptance of others.”

He also expressed concern at “the increase in persecution and discrimination against Christians, especially over the last 10 years. At times, this involves nonviolent but socially significant cases of gradual marginalization and exclusion from political and social life and from the exercise of certain professions, even in traditionally Christian lands.” He said that “altogether, more than 360 million Christians around the world are experiencing a high level of discrimination and persecution because of their faith, with more and more of them being forced to flee their homelands.”

Pope Francis concluded by recalling that the Catholic Church is preparing for the Holy Year that will begin before next Christmas and said, “Today, perhaps more than ever, we need a Holy Year.” He said the jubilee is “a proclamation that God never abandons his people” and in the Judeo-Christian tradition, “[it] is a season of grace that enables us to experience God’s mercy and the gift of his peace. It is also a season of righteousness, in which sins are forgiven, reconciliation prevails over injustice, and the earth can be at rest. For everyone—Christians and non-Christians alike—the Jubilee can be a time when swords are beaten into plowshares, a time when one nation will no longer lift up sword against another, nor learn war anymore (cf. Is 2:4).”

When he concluded speaking, the ambassadors responded with energetic applause. The pope then greeted each of them individually.

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