The Sunday Angelus is usually an opportunity for Pope Francis to reflect on the gospel of the day, but the first Sunday in October came just a few days after the Russian Federation, in an attempt to at least symbolically lay claim to territory it was struggling to control militarily, annexed four regions of Ukraine, ratcheting up the stakes in a conflict that was already a profound threat to world peace.
In an address that was an extraordinary expression of his concern over the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis, following Vatican protocol, did not call out Vladimir Putin by name, but he did urge the president of the Russian Federation, for the sake of his own people if not for the suffering of millions of Ukrainians, to “stop this spiral of violence and death.” “In the name of God and in the name of the sense of humanity that dwells in every heart, I renew my call for an immediate ceasefire,” he said.
But the pope’s message was to no avail. Days after his appeal, the violence, particularly directed against civilian targets in Ukrainian cities, only increased.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, naturally, predominates the worries of the season. It remains almost impossible to accept that in the 21st century a large-scale conflict on the European continent is being waged again, this one of such magnitude that it poses a strategic and economic threat not only across Europe but around the world. Meanwhile, Putin’s ominous threats to deploy nuclear weapons to defend Russian territory, even as he attempts to redefine that territory illegally, begin an exercise in brinkmanship last experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
All that is bad enough, but the Ukraine crisis is not the only threat to peace as we close out 2022 and look with anxiety toward 2023.
Suffering and disorder from older, unresolved conflicts continue even if they may no longer command headlines. The Syrian civil war continues to propel one of the world’s largest migration crises with nearly 7 million Syrians forced to flee their country since 2011 and another nearly 7 million who remain internally displaced. Political and economic chaos in Venezuela has driven almost 7 million people into neighboring states and increasingly to the U.S. border. In Africa, conflict in Mali, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and the Republic of the Congo continues.
It is enough to suck out all the merriment of the season, but glimmers of hope prevail as well. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has not gone unchallenged. The war has strengthened the NATO alliance and pulled the fractious European community together.
The United Nations’ efforts to mitigate the war’s worst effects have demonstrated the multilateral institution’s resilience and continuing relevance. U.N. bodies have been important forums for airing grievances against Russia, and U.N. agencies and officials, particularly Secretary-General António Guterres, have heroically interceded to prevent what could have been—and still may be—a global hunger disaster by negotiating the release of Ukrainian grain.
It is hard to imagine at this somber moment how to move the geopolitical needle closer to peace. This Christmas the Prince of Peace surely has his work cut out for him. Although we live in hope, hope itself needs a hand every now and then.
In an interview with the Argentine daily La Nación in April, Pope Francis assured reporters that the Vatican’s diplomatic corps “never rests” in its effort to promote peace, even if much of that work is conducted through back channels not obvious to the public. That seen and unseen process is a small reminder that peace in our time is not a gift that will be magically handed over to us this Christmas, but a struggle that will have to be hard won against the contemporary forces of violence.
Image: Flickr/Oleksandr Ratushniak/UNDP Ukraine