Due to the many conflicts in our world, and especially focusing recently on the conflagration in Ukraine, we have been saying various prayers for peace. In addition to the Rosary, one of the more popular prayers in our tradition is the Franciscan prayer which opens, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

During the Communion Rite at Mass the priest recites the Prayer for Peace which concludes with the invitation to the assembly to “extend to one another a sign of peace.” For most of us this involves shaking hands with those around us, while spouses and other family members might kiss one another. As the climax of the Rite of Ordination of Priests, the bishop and then all of the priests who are present share the kiss of peace with the newly ordained. So often we talk about peace, But what is it that we mean when we pray for “peace?”

In April, 1963 and shortly before his death, Pope John XXIII issued his groundbreaking encyclical, Pacem in Terris. Just months after The Cuban Missile Crisis rocked the world, the Ppope challenged the world to accept and protect the rights and dignity of all people, their hopes, and aspirations, their dreams, and particularly their quest for freedom. Yet this is not merely a political statement akin to the Universal Rights in the UN Charter. Any quest for or understanding of peace must be rooted in love. The sainted Pope wrote: “(37) Now the order which prevails in human society is wholly incorporeal in nature. Its foundation is truth, and it must be brought into effect by justice. It needs to be animated and perfected by men's love for one another, and, while preserving freedom intact, it must make for an equilibrium in society which is increasingly more human in character.”

Jesus, in preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit, gifted peace to his disciples. This peace is oriented towards unity and must always be grounded in love. Jesus instructs us to love one another, not for selfish reasons, but in reflection of his love for us.

Building on this legacy from Pope John, Vatican II instructs us in the Constitution, Gaudium et Spes (78): “Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice. Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine Founder, and actualized by (human beings) as they thirst after ever greater justice. The common good of humanity finds its ultimate meaning in the eternal law. But since the concrete demands of this common good are constantly changing as time goes on, peace is never attained once and for all, but must be built up ceaselessly. Moreover, since the human will is unsteady and wounded by sin, the achievement of peace requires a constant mastering of passions and the vigilance of lawful authority.”

Peace fundamentally begins when an individual person freely chooses to cooperate with God’s plan for his or her life. Motivated by love — agape — as an act of self-sacrifice for the welfare and salvation of the other, peace is the fulfillment of God’s plan for creation. More than a sense of harmony between parties, peace is an interior reality that transforms the person to act and live in ways which draw others to an awareness of peace. When we think of examples of those whose lives embodied this peace we can turn to St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Kolkata and St. Oscar Romero to begin. They lived in sublime acceptance of God’s will for them and allowed his peace to guide their words and actions. Even as the world around them was often skeptical and even hostile, they nonetheless followed a path of peace and justice, challenging the world around them.

As instruments of peace they were often in conflict with the world. While this seems to be a paradox, it is one that is understood as we recognize the forces of sin that rebel against the hope that such peace brings to a fallen world. 

In his address for the World Day of Peace, January 1, 1972, Pope Paul VI said succinctly: “If you want peace, work for justice.” This task looms before the Church and the world as much today as it ever has. 

In leaving his peace with the disciples, and so with the Church, he desires of us union with him and the Father through our participation in the divine plan. We can never know the fullness of the Spirit until we first strive for the peace that Jesus extends to us.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.