During the Angelus address of February 4, Pope Francis declared “a special day of fasting and prayer for peace,” setting the date for Friday of the first week of Lent. We might ask why depriving ourselves of a meal or two should influence the balance of world power. Here’s how and why it happens.
Yesterday evening, I received a WhatsApp audio message in which the Holy Father proposed that today be “a special day of fasting and prayer for peace.” It was the audio of part of the Angelus from Sunday, February 4.
It made me smile, because it was sent to me by a friend of mine who is a theologian—a “progressive” theologian; one of those who, in abstract terms, would criticize the practice of corporal penance. But she forwarded this message to me, right on time for it to be a helpful reminder.
Great, so let’s set aside the futile question of whether or not my friend has changed her idea about fasting as such, “Because,” to paraphrase St. Paul, “as long as Christ is proclaimed, in every way, I rejoice in it, and I will continue to rejoice” (cf Philippians 1:18).
Christ is indeed the one at the center of this, even if the Holy Father invited “also our brothers and sisters who are not Catholic and not Christian to join this initiative in the way that they consider appropriate.”
Actually, this is an even greater reason why Christ is at the center: because the Gospel is proclamation and mission, before than, and more than, culture and identity. Forgetting that fact would lead us to mental restrictions of a cold war mentality, similar to that which, in 1963, confronted the publication of the encyclical Pacem in Terris of Pope St. John XXIII: “Your Holiness,” they said with affected sympathy, “we understand your good intentions—peace is a wonderful thing—but from a diplomatic standpoint, talking about it would mean endorsing the Soviet block…”
In brief, “peace is commie talk.” Perhaps Catholics should flip around the words said by Norberto Bobbio on May 8, 1981, about abortion: “I’m astonished […] that secularists leave to believers the privilege and the honor of affirming that killing is wrong.” We Catholics should also be astonished that the propaganda of a world that crumbled under the Berlin Wall should continue to steal from us “the privilege and the honor or affirming that waging war is wrong.”
And we won’t deal here with the hypothesis of the “just war” school: it is a day of fasting, not of study. Rather, it would be easy for someone to ask, “How is it possible that my fasting will stop war? What does what I eat have to do with world peace?”
Mysterious, but true
That’s a great question, but before explaining how and why that happens, I’d like to remind everyone that it does, in fact, happen; not only that, it has already happened. Do you remember what happened with the Syrian crisis in 2013?
The conflict was close to making the local bonfire of war ignite a global conflagration, presaging terrifying post-atomic scenarios. Pope Francis took recourse then as well to fasting and prayer. “This kind of demon,” Jesus said, “cannot be cast out if not by fasting and prayer.” (Matthew 17:21) And so it was, if you remember. It’s worth remembering how Sandro Magister spoke about it, a few days afterwards:
Rome, September 12, 2013 — A few days after the event, it is becoming more and more perceptible how extraordinary the vigil, presided by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square on the evening of Saturday, September 7, was.
Above all, the motive: a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and wherever there is war, with the participation not only of Catholics, but of people of every religion, or simply “of good will.” Not only in Rome, but in many cities around the world.
Then, the duration. I can’t remember another public prayer vigil lasting for four consecutive hours, from sunset to late at night, with the constant presence of the Pope.
Then also, the silence. During the entire arc of the vigil, the recollection of the hundred thousand people who filled St. Peter’s Squre and the surrounding areas was intense and moving. In tune with the accentuated austerity of the pope’s own presence.
Then, above all, the form that the prayer took. It began with the rosary, the most evangelical and universal of the ‘popular’ prayers, and with a meditation led by Pope Francis. It continued with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It then continued with the Office of Readings—that is, the nocturnal psalmody of the monks—and with the reading of passages from Jeremiah, St. Leo the Great, and the Gospel of John. It ended with the singing of the “Te Deum” and with Eucharistic benediction given by the pope.
But perhaps what struck those present the most was when the Marian icon of “Salus Populi Romani” entered the square at the beginning of the celebration, held up by four halberdiers of the Swiss Guard, and preceded by two children with bouquets of flowers. The icon was enthroned before Pope Francis, who venerated it devoutly. It was the reference point for the entire vigil, next to the altar.
It seems that what Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston sang 20 years ago was actually true—something which, in the end, the entire Christian tradition has always repeated: “There can be miracles / when you believe.”
OK, but fasting?
And how does fasting enter the picture? Why accompany faith and prayer with fasting? There are various reasons; here, I try to list a few (without pretending to cover all the bases):
- Fasting bends man’s pride, and every war is born from someone’s pride: by fasting, we recognize that we are brothers of the proud, and that we are proud like our warmonger brothers, so we ask God to convert all of our hearts;
- Fasting leads us to humble prayer, so we don’t put ourselves on a pedestal with respect to others: the Pharisee Jesus described in the parable fasted, yes, three times a week, but by boasting of it, he made it a vain gesture; he emptied it of its sacrificial significance and—so to speak—he reneged on it.
- Fasting leads those who do it to express compassion towards the direct victims of violence and of war: we have no merit if we are “on the right side” of the world; not only that, perhaps its our very being “on the right side” that makes us in some way a cooperating cause of the suffering of others (but that needs to be explained better);
- Fasting breaks the dynamics of consumption, it brings us back to the essentials, and it shows us that we can live even without all of those things that the opulence of our world induces us to consider “essential”: then, our eyes are opened to the prospect of an essentially sober lifestyle, learning an integral ecology that restores to the (often overused) phrase “fair and solidary” to its highest destiny, which is Paradise.
Fasting, therefore, isn’t “peace,” but it is just in a more modest way: it is a reality check from many points of view. This is why Isaiah says that
The work of justice will be peace; the effect of justice, calm and security forever. (Isaiah 32:17)
Peace is a gift from heaven, but we can ask God for it by doing justice. Not without reason the psalmist sings:
I will listen for what God, the LORD, has to say;
surely he will speak of peace
To his people and to his faithful.
May they not turn to foolishness!
Near indeed is his salvation for those who fear him;
glory will dwell in our land.
Love and truth will meet;
justice and peace will kiss.
Truth will spring from the earth;
justice will look down from heaven.
Yes, the LORD will grant his bounty;
our land will yield its produce.
Justice will march before him,
and make a way for his footsteps.
Let us anoint our head and wash our face, as Jesus recommends (Mt 6:16-18), and let us fast with profound joy, begging:
Bring us back to you, LORD, that we may return:
renew our days as of old.
Look, the Lord is already coming to meet us:
Why spend your money for what is not bread;
your wages for what does not satisfy?
Only listen to me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.