This past Sunday Pope Francis said after leading the Angelus, “today we also remember all road traffic victims: we pray for them and we commit ourselves to prevent accidents.”
Later that day at least five people were killed and at least 40 people were injured (as of press time) Waukesha, Wisc., at a Christmas parade, as an SUV plowed into the crowd. This does not appear to be an accident.
Sandra Peterson, the communication director of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, issued a statement on Sunday evening. ”Our prayers are with the people who have been injured and killed during the tragic incident in Waukesha. Among the injured are one of our Catholic priests, as well as multiple parishioners and Waukesha Catholic school children. Please join us in prayer for all those involved, their families, and those who are traumatized from witnessing the horrible scene.”
What is one to do, sitting back here in New England, when such a massacre happens? Instead of just watching hours and hours of horrific footage, we should turn to God, go to a church or chapel or (if those are not available or convenient at that time) pray privately wherever we are, asking for mercy upon the souls of the dead, for healing for the injured (both those hurt in the attack and those bystanders and first responders who have to deal with the mental anguish of what they have seen), for repentance for the attacker (Jesus would do this, so we should, too), and asking God to help us be part of the solution, not adding to the problem.
As the old hymn says, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” The devil rejoices both in such evil attacks, but also in the desires for violent revenge that he tries to place in our hearts.
On Feb. 19, 2017, Pope Francis gave an Angelus address about not seeking revenge, using as his “springboard” Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew 5:38-48, which the Holy Father called “one of the passages that best illustrates Christian ‘revolution’ — Jesus shows us the way of true justice through the law of love which is greater than the law of retaliation, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ This ancient law imposed the infliction on wrongdoers of a punishment equivalent to the damage they caused: death for those who killed, amputation for those who injured, and so on. Jesus does not ask His disciples to abide evil, but asks them to react; however, not with another evil action, but with good. This is the only way to break the chain of evil: one evil leads to another which leads to another evil. This chain of evil is broken and things truly begin to change. Evil is, in fact, a ‘void,’ a void of good. It is not possible to fill a void, except with ‘fullness,’ that is, good. Revenge never leads to conflict resolution. ‘You did this to me, I will do it back to you’: this never resolves conflict, nor is it even Christian.”
Unfortunately, we Christians are hardly sinless (the only ones who were are Jesus and Mary) and history is replete with violence done by us, often in revenge. In Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice,” the Jewish character (and really anti-Semitic caricature) Shylock says about one of the protagonists, “I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him. He looks just like a guy who’s robbed me but now comes to beg me a favor! I hate him because he is a Christian.” This Christian, who is considered one of the “good guys” in the play, has spat upon Shylock more than once. Shylock didn’t see Christ in how the Christians were treating him.
Pope Francis, in his address from nearly four years ago, was trying to get us back to how a Christian should properly react to injustice — as Christ would react.
“According to Jesus, the rejection of violence can also involve the sacrifice of a legitimate right. He gives a few examples of this: turn the other cheek, give up your coat or money, accept other sacrifices (v. 39-42). But such sacrifice does not mean that the demands of justice should be ignored or contradicted. No, on the contrary, Christian love, which manifests itself in a special way in mercy, is an achievement superior to justice. What Jesus wants to teach us is the clear distinction that we must make between justice and revenge. Revenge is never just. We are permitted to ask for justice. It is our duty to exercise justice. We are, however, not permitted to avenge ourselves or, in any way foment revenge, as it is an expression of hatred and violence.
“Jesus does not wish to propose a new system of civil law, but rather the commandment to love thy neighbor, which also includes loving enemies: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (v. 44). And this is not easy. These words should not be seen as an approval of evil carried out by an enemy, but as an invitation to a loftier perspective, a magnanimous perspective, similar to that of the Heavenly Father, Who, Jesus says, ‘makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust’ (v. 45). An enemy, in fact, is also a human being, created as such in God’s image, despite the fact that in the present, that image may be tarnished by shameful behavior.
“When we speak of ‘enemies,’ we should not think about people who are different or far removed from us; let us also talk about ourselves, as we may come into conflict with our neighbor, at times with our relatives. How many hostilities exist within families — how many! Let us think about this. Enemies are also those who speak ill of us, who defame us and do us harm. It is not easy to digest this. We are called to respond to each of them with good, which also has strategies inspired by love.”
After discussing wars and terrorism which had occurred around the time when he was giving that address, Pope Francis ended with this: “Let us pray ardently that every heart hardened by hatred may be converted to peace, according to God’s will. Let us pray for a moment in silence.” And then St. Peter’s Square became silent as the thousand there prayed for peace. Let us do the same.