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What we can learn from Pope Francis’ trip to Iraq

| Friday, March 12, 2021

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

Last week, Pope Francis became the first Catholic pope to visit Iraq. Throughout his visit, he gave a series of remarks that repeatedly emphasized one theme: peaceful fraternity between different religious groups. The Pope pulled no punches and made no equivocations about the absolute need for peace in the search for justice, remarking in his first statement of the trip, “Religion, by its very nature, must be at the service of peace and fraternity.” Religious division must never be a source of human conflict, Pope Francis argued, because religion in itself is a communal movement towards God. This idea caused me to reflect on how peace is threatened in our lives and what we as Notre Dame students can do to pursue peace. 

First off, I do not believe that pursuing peace means being complacent with injustice, such as oppression, racism, violence or anything of the sort. All persons should call out and actively work against injustice; students at the University of Notre Dame have far more power to do so than most people in this world. We must use the tools and privileges that have been provided to us to fight for good in this world, which means speaking truth to power, taking material action towards justice and dedicating our lives to the benefit of those most in need. This action might be seen as ‘divisive,’ but the kind of unity that passively accepts wrongdoing is not the kind of unity that any of us should be striving towards. Instead, we must seek to embrace our fellow humans, recognizing both their faults and our own and striving together to do better. 

Loving our neighbor entails hoping for, and striving towards, the genuine well-being of all human persons. But one of the most common aspects of the human experience, in my view, is to make exceptions to these wishes of well-being for all people. Almost everyone, certainly including myself and everyone I’ve ever met, struggles to make this hope for well-being quite universal, if they try at all. If you’re doubting that this is really so hard, consider the following: Have you ever rejoiced at the death of someone you really hated? Have you ever wished death upon someone, perhaps a personal tormentor or a hated celebrity? (I cannot count the number of times I have heard people of every political inclination wish death upon politicians). Do you believe that there are people in this world who are simply evil and incapable of rehabilitation? Do you go so far as to believe that entire groups of people fall into this category? On a much smaller scale: do you smile, perhaps only to yourself, when an ex goes through a breakup? Do you relish the thought of a member of a rival sports team getting injured? 

If any of your answers were yes, and I’m willing to bet they were, then you are flawed. Actually, you’re flawed either way, but hopefully, you’ve realized that you probably suffer from this particular flaw: the lack of love for all of our siblings. There cannot be exceptions to our love for our neighbors. If there are, how dare we fault our neighbors for their lack of love for us? If we say, “I believe in universal human rights/dignity/love, but” then we are the problem to at least the same extent as those we hate. The exceptions we make to universal love are direct attacks on universal peace. In order to achieve peace, we must love others, even — especially — when it is difficult. 

So what does that look like in practice? At the most immediate level, I think it means practicing forgiveness and opening our vulnerable hearts. Reach out to that guy you’ve been feuding with on Twitter; grab lunch with that AR you can’t stand. We must forge relationships even with those people we strongly disagree with, even with those people who might hurt us, even with those people we believe are personally abominable. Let your friends be friends with the person who dumped you, have a (soft) drink with your annoying roommate from freshman year. We cannot allow grudges, past wrongs or perceived slights to poison our ability to grow together. 

In a wider sense, we must work for the benefit of those in need, regardless of what faults we find in them and without concern for their physical or personal distance from us. We can’t write off our obligations to help others because we blame them, their actions or their political leaders for their problems. Don’t simply smirk at the recent devastation in Texas because you don’t like Governor Abbot or Republicans overall; contribute to helping those in personal or financial turmoil. Don’t dismiss the needs or rights of the incarcerated because of their histories; fight for their safe treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration into society. 

Many of us will leave Notre Dame and reach great positions of power where we might actually be able to directly affect the status of peace in Iraq. Many of us will not. But all of us can fight the cycle of violence by deciding to love our neighbors as ourselves, that is, as deeply flawed humans who nevertheless should be granted mercy and forgiveness. 

The need for justice and the need for peace are inseparable. This means not only that we must fight wrongdoing while loving wrongdoers; it means that the two obligations are really one and the same. Justice is doing right towards others; social justice is the creation of a community in which we treat each other well. This requires peace between all, and peace, in turn, requires the hatred of hatred itself. Pope Francis said that “…anyone who believes in God, has no enemies to fight. He or she has only one enemy to face, an enemy that stands at the door of the heart and knocks to enter. That enemy is hatred.” May we never use religion as a weapon, and may we all work for peace on earth.


Vince Mallett is a senior majoring in philosophy, with a minor in constitutional studies. He currently lives off-campus, though he calls both New Jersey and Carroll Hall home. He can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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