If the pope were a politician, you would have said he had big momentum after that ﬁrst summer of 2013. In July, World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro was an unqualiﬁed triumph. “I think history will show that World Youth Day in Brazil was one of the most successful of all World Youth Days,” said Bishop Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska. He was struck by the number of people who stopped him in the streets and asked for a blessing. “They loved the fact that their shepherds were in the streets, walking with the people.”
The bishop and the popes were going out into the streets, and the people were responding. On July 26, at one point a nine-year-old Brazilian in a soccer jersey broke past barriers to deliver a message to Pope Francis. “Your Holiness, I want to be a priest of Christ, a representative of Christ,” he said. The pope, in tears, asked him to pray for him and said, “As of today, your vocation is set.”
Young pilgrims from across the United States told reporters that they had been drifting from the faith, but after their encounter with the pope amid a sea of young faces, they were ready to take on the world.3 “All I thought was that we are not alone here. There are more of us. When we saw the pope and I heard his speech I teared up a little because to me all he said was the truth,” said one young American pilgrim.
“I had the blessing of seeing Pope Francis up so close,” said another. “His face beamed with happiness, and it was there that I realized he wasn’t joking when he said we were capable of going out and making disciples of all nations.”
Pilgrims describe how, at a nighttime prayer vigil on Copacabana Beach the night before the ﬁnal Mass, the rhythm of the waves melded powerfully with the hymns and the voice of the Holy Father. “Dear young people, please, don’t be observers of life, but get involved,” Francis told them. “Jesus did not remain an observer, but he immersed himself. Don’t be observers, but immerse yourself in the reality of life, as Jesus did.”
Because a planned campsite had been ﬂooded with water, many of the young people had nowhere to go, and so they stayed on the beach overnight.
Bishop Conley remembered the scene the next morning. “The sun rose over Copacabana Beach Sunday morning, and three million young people assembled along the water’s edge,” he said. “Most of those three million pilgrims had spent the night on the beach.”
In his homily at that Mass, Francis invited the world’s young Catholics to share his vision. “Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent,” he said.
His words had a powerful impact—but pilgrims were just as struck by his example. Katherine Bauman, a Benedictine College student at the time, presented the ﬁrst reading at the Mass. She told me what it was like to see Francis up close:
“I was particularly struck by his simplicity, his humanity.… He is one of the biggest ‘celebrities’ in the world, and it is clear that he hates the attention, yet he is radiant with joy when he is driven through the crowds. It is obvious that the excitement is not because he is in the spotlight—he does not see crowds, but people, persons, God’s children, and he loves each one of them for that. He is a living example of his own call to truly encounter others, and his demeanor reminds me of the simplicity and accessibility of Christ in his humanity.”
The pope’s ﬁve-hour vigil for peace in Syria had the same effect on those who were there. I have described my daughter’s experience there, but it was her ﬁrst exposure to such a thing. You would expect her to be impressed. You wouldn’t necessarily expect it from Father Federico Lombardi. He started working in the Vatican when John Paul II was less than halfway through his papacy.
“I’ve been here for 23 years,” said the papal spokesman, “and I remember gatherings for peace in Assisi, but I don’t remember anything with this dimension in St. Peter’s Square.”
The vigil for peace in Syria was born in the last two weeks of August 2013, when heartbreaking photographs started appearing in the news: Rows of corpses of men, women, and children laid out in white cotton body bags. The New York Times reported on the “telltale signs of chemical weapons”: “corpses without visible injury; hospitals ﬂooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”10 By August 30, The Washington Post was reporting that more than 1,400 people had been killed in chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government targeting rebels in the nation’s civil war.
On September 1, 2013, the pope used his Sunday Angelus remarks to register his horror. “Those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart,” he said. “There is the judgment of God, and also the judgment of history, upon our actions from which there is no escaping.”12 Then, he delivered a message to the West with an uncharacteristic shout: “War brings on war! Violence brings on violence!”
Francis announced a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace to be marked with a vigil in St. Peter’s Square set for Saturday, September 7. Churches worldwide held their own vigils in solidarity with the pope. The Archdiocese of Madrid devoted all the day’s Masses to the intention of peace in Syria and citywide, church bells rang out at noon to call Catholics to pray an Angelus dedicated to Mary, Queen of Peace. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, said a Mass for peace in Syria at the cathedral and asked Catholics to abstain from meat as a fast for the intention. The Archdiocese of Denver offered adoration from 7:00 PM until midnight, joining in the prayers for peace.
But in Rome, the pilgrims came from all over, pouring out of trains and buses to get to the Vatican. Americans rearranged their European vacations to be there. When the prayer vigil started, religious sisters and seminarians ﬁlled St. Peter’s Square, but so did mothers with their infants in their arms, locals, and men and women of every nationality.
Pilgrims told reporters how deeply moving the event was. A Minnesotan man whose family was practically trapped by the event on a vacation stop at the Vatican museums said he felt a “sense of peace and the oneness of humanity” in St. Peter’s Square that he hoped could “resonate with all of the leaders of the world.”
An Italian pilgrim said, “Today is a very important day. Francis’s voice is very powerful. Not only Christians but Muslims and Jewish people and non-believers listen to his word. Maybe new ways of peace are coming.”
Francis’s prayer vigil started with dozens of priests offering confessions starting at 5:45 that morning. After readings and prayers, four Swiss Guards carried a statue of Mary, Protectress of the Roman People, through the square, with two girls spreading ﬂowers before them. The Holy Father led the rosary, invoking Our Lady, Queen of Peace, with each mystery. There followed readings and prayers climaxing in an extended silent period of Eucharistic Adoration scheduled to begin that morning at 10:15.
‘My Brother's Keeper’
At that event, Francis spelled out his vision of war and peace in a dramatic, succinct way. Violence came from the same source as greed and sexual immorality: Idolatry. In his meditation, he told the pilgrims: “When man thinks only of himself, of his own interests and places himself in the center, when he permits himself to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when he puts himself in God’s place, then all relationships are broken and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference, and conﬂict.”
The pope sees the origins of war in the origins of mankind.
“God asks man’s conscience: ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ and Cain responds: ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” he said. “We too are asked this question, it would be good for us to ask ourselves as well: Am I really my brother’s keeper? Yes, you are your brother’s keeper!”
He said that we “bring about the rebirth of Cain with every act of violence” but that it doesn’t have to be this way. If Cain was an icon of a sinner hardened in his corruption, Jesus Christ cruciﬁed is an icon of how far God will go to free sinners from slavery to evil.
“My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross,” said the pope. “There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken.”
Before leaving the pilgrims in silence before the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, he offered a little examination of conscience and a resolution:
“Is it possible to walk the path of peace? Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?” he asked. “Invoking the help of God, under the maternal gaze of the Salus Populi Romani, Queen of Peace, I say: Yes, it is possible for everyone! From every corner of the world tonight, I would like to hear us cry out: Yes, it is possible for everyone! Or even better, I would like for each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it!”
He would turn to the same themes again and again when he spoke about war: personal conversion, the cross, a new fraternity of man. When the angels declared, “Peace on earth and good will to men,” at Christ’s birth, they didn’t mean that now, God would magically end war: They meant that he would teach human beings, through Christ, how to live lives reconciled with God and each other—and that we Christians would bring peace on earth by the way we live.
The vigil had a profound effect worldwide. People watched in astonishment in the days that followed it as Syria’s leaders handed over their chemical weapons without military intervention. Whether that was an answer to prayer or a reaction to the pope's forceful cry for peace or just a happy coincidence, it strengthened the reputation of Francis, the peacemaker.
Tom Hoopes is Writer in Residence and Vice President of College Relations at Benedictine College, where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communication Department. He writes weekly for the National Catholic Register and Aleteia, reaching a national and international audience. His work has also appeared in Catholic Digest, Columbia magazine, Crisis magazine and First Things online. To learn more about his latest book What Pope Francis Really Said: Words of Comfort and Challenge, click the image below.