A man embraces Palestinian children as people search for casualties at the site of an Israeli airstrike on a residential building in Gaza City. OSV News photo/Yasser Qudih, Reuters

May peace, indeed, be with us

  • December 21, 2023

“Peace be with you.”

In a world that has not seen such violence, destruction and unbridled hate on such a large scale since the tragedy that was the Second World War, those words seem to ring hollow as we enter into a new year.

And little did Pope Francis know, as he delivered his message for the World Day of Peace 2023 on Jan. 1, that when he called us “to keep our hearts open to hope and to trust in God,” that those words might also ring hollow to those experiencing war in so many places across the globe, and to those who would be engulfed in conflict to come.

Perhaps the death of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, on the final day of 2022 foreshadowed a year of sorrow to come. The beloved German pope breathed his last breath at 3:34 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 31.

But sorrow be damned, Francis was insistent that peace can be with us as long as we walk with God and that it would take a communal effort.

“For it is together, in fraternity and solidarity, that we build peace, ensure justice and emerge from the greatest disasters,” the Pope said in his annual peace message.

“We can no longer think exclusively of carving out space for our personal or national interests; instead, we must think in terms of the common good, recognizing that we belong to a greater community, and opening our minds and hearts to universal human fraternity. We cannot continue to focus simply on preserving ourselves; rather the time has come for all of us to endeavour to heal our society and our planet, to lay the foundations for a more just and peaceful world, and to commit ourselves seriously to pursuing a good that is truly common.”

Francis laid down for us a tough path to follow, what with the continued blood being shed as Ukraine kept up its fight against the invading Russian forces; as conflicts abound across the African continent — in Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Ethiopia and elsewhere, with more than 40 million displaced; as Armenians fled Nagorno-Karabakh in the face of Azerbaijan’s attack and the threat of wiping the region clean of its Christian identity; with tensions high in Asia, in Afghanistan and Myanmar and particularly Chinese threats toward Taiwan; and now the Middle East powder keg exploding as Israel vows to eradicate Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist organizations that threaten its well-being following the terror attacks that took upward of 1,200 Israeli lives and saw hundreds taken captive, along with the thousands of Palestinians who have perished in the Israeli response.

But “peace be with you” is what it will be for this Pope, and he has taken every opportunity to spread that message this year. From his weekly pulpit delivering the Angelus in St. Peter’s Square, to appointing special envoy Cardinal Matteo Zuppi to explore peace options on the Ukraine front, to his calls for guaranteed humanitarian corridors to provide relief to beleaguered Palestinians trapped in Gaza, peace is always on the pontiff’s mind. 

Yet peace has been hard to find for Christians around the world, and 2023 was no different. Christianity continues to be the most persecuted faith around the world, though you would need to dig deep to find this reported anywhere. In Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and more, at the hands of the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, and of course under communist regimes like Cuba and China, Christians find themselves with a target on their backs. But these don’t make headlines, at home or abroad. Open Doors tracks this persecution though, and claims upwards of 360 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith.

Are things any better for Christians in Canada? There is certainly an argument to be made that they aren’t. We see it each year in some form, perhaps the most egregious this year being a Canadian Human Rights Commission report denouncing Christmas as toxic and part of our nation’s “history with religious intolerance” that is “deeply rooted in our identity as a settler colonial state.” And then the Canadian military’s chaplain general only backed down on imposing a ban on overtly religious language at Remembrance Day ceremonies after much backlash. It remains on the table however, as the policy is before a committee for review. Will we see this raise its head again next year? It’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

Still, the Church moves ahead. There was so much more on the papal and Church plates in 2023. The first phase of the Synod on Synodality was almost totally overshadowed as it launched pretty well simultaneously with Hamas’ attack on Israel. Its significance, though, will not be lost on a Church that is seeking a new path forward, one that has vowed to listen to Church voices beyond the Vatican’s halls of power and its hierarchy. This unprecedented synod’s mandate brought together Catholics from all corners of the Church “in virtue of their baptism, to sit at the same table to take part, not only in the discussions, but also in the voting process of this Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.”

It did not disappoint. Ordinary Catholics in the pews participated on an equal footing with Cardinals, Bishops, priests; women’s voices were an important part of the discussions as Francis seeks a Church more open to outside voices as it seeks to be more attentive to the experience of its members. The synod’s council has already asked Pope Francis to authorize studies surrounding numerous areas, including canon law, revising rules for priestly formation and deepening theological reflection on the diaconate, including the possibility of ordaining women deacons.

This is only the beginning, however, as phase two is slated for next fall and will take in what was heard this past October before coming to its conclusion.

On the home front, there was so much that caught the eyes and ears of Catholics. Topping the list is medical assistance in dying (MAiD). If that sounds like a repeat of years previous, well… MAiD has expanded by leaps and bounds since its inception in 2016, when the procedure was approved for those whose death was reasonably foreseeable. Since then, the reasonably foreseeable aspect has been expanded to those with a grievous and irremediable illness. The current law prohibits MAiD for mental illness but that was to change this past year, until the federal government delayed its introduction of MAiD to those suffering from mental health issues. It was only a temporary reprieve though, pushed back a year and now to be implemented this coming March 17 (though in late December the Justice Minister was hinting it might be pushed back again). 

Wildfires, a staple of Canadian summers, were never far from the headlines this past year, a particularly nasty one that saw huge swaths of the nation burn across Canada’s north, west and east. British Columbia, which generally is the near the centre of these annual events, took a back seat to Alberta, the Northwest Territories and even Nova Scotia in 2023. The north in particular was hard hit, with mass evacuations of people from the path of the wildfires that threatened Yellowknife and other communities in the Northwest Territories.

Mackenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Jon Hansen had a front row seat, the shepherd joining his flock in a mass exodus from various locales to communities across northern Alberta. The good shepherd never kept his eye off the flock as he escaped “the closest image to an apocalyptic wasteland that I have ever seen” as he set up with family in Grande Prairie. He kept in touch as best he could online and through social media.

And on the frontlines battling these blazes was found none other than Fr. Gerald Mendoza. The pastor of Our Lady of Assumption Parish in Chateh, Alta., and St. Paul in nearby Rainbow Lake has been a volunteer firefighter for nearly a decade, and was involved in battling the blazes while at the same time providing a priestly presence to his comrades.

When the fires died, the heat was turned up in Canadian schools as parents began to fight back against a creeping gender ideology. The battle culminated in September with the 1 Million March 4 Children that saw protesters take to the streets in major cities to take back parental control in their children’s education. The tipping point was school policies that refused to inform parents when their child changed their first name and pronouns. Parents were determined to take back control of their children’s lives from the school bureaucrats.

Among those joining the march was New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs, whose government legislated that schools were to inform parents of any such changes in the child’s identity, with several provinces soon to follow.

“The situation is pretty straightforward. It’s kind of amazing that there’s even a discussion of what the role of parents should be with their kids’ lives,” Higgs told media at the march.

As for Toronto, a new shepherd has made his way west as Archbishop Francis Leo was uprooted from Montreal to take over Canada’s largest diocese from retiring Cardinal Thomas Collins. Just as spring broke, Leo took the reins in Toronto before a packed St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica where he consecrated the Archdiocese to “the immaculate heart of the Ever Blessed Virgin Mary.” Since then, Leo has made his presence felt as he gets to know the ins and outs of the Toronto Archdiocese along with its people. He’s also set forth the opening steps for his vision for the future, tapping into the people in the pews as he begins to craft its next pastoral plan.

Indeed, it has been a year with its share of ups and downs. But one that, like all others, ends on a hopeful note. We mark the arrival of the Prince of Peace at Christmas, where we can turn to Isaiah 9:6 and his prophecy about the coming Messiah:

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

Peace, indeed, be with us.

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