[Note: The translations in this article are our own, as the Vatican’s English-language translation of his address was not yet released at the time of publication.]
As he does every year at New Year’s, Pope Francis mapped out the Church’s concern with hotbeds of violence around the world. On January 9, 2023, speaking to the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, he began with Ukraine but then cited some 20 regions of high tension. The Holy Father also distilled his recommendations for peace – disarmament, education, redesign of the multilateral system, etc.
During this traditional meeting in the Vatican’s Hall of Blessings, the Pope took the time to express the main points of attention and vigilance of the Holy See – which maintains diplomatic relations with 184 States. This year, the 86-year-old Pontiff pleaded for the right to life and religious freedom, among other things.
In his text, based on John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963), the Argentine Pontiff described the “third world war” underway, and gave an overview of the conflicts around the world, starting with “the war in Ukraine, with its trail of death and destruction.”
Before these diplomats from around the world, the Pope renewed his call “for an immediate end to this senseless conflict, whose effects affect entire regions, even outside Europe, because of its repercussions on energy and food production, especially in Africa and the Middle East.”
“The building of peace requires that there be no attacks on the freedom, integrity, or security of foreign nations, regardless of the size of their territory or their capacity to defend it,” the 266th Pope also said in his 40-minute address.
Referring to other theaters of tension and conflict, the Pope expressed his “great sorrow” for Syria, calling for “the necessary reforms, including constitutional ones, aimed at restoring hope to the Syrian people afflicted by ever-increasing poverty.” He also deplored international sanctions that affect the daily life of a population that has already suffered so much.
The Pontiff expressed his concern for “the worsening violence between Palestinians and Israelis, with the dramatic consequence of many victims and a total lack of mutual trust.”
Regarding Jerusalem, “a holy city for Jews, Christians and Muslims,” the Pope wished that it could be “a place and a symbol of encounter and peaceful coexistence.”
He pleaded for “access and freedom of worship in the Holy Places,” and reiterated the defense of the Holy See of “the two-state solution,” urging the authorities of Israel and Palestine to dialogue.
Pope’s concerns in Africa, Asia, America
Ahead of his “pilgrimage for peace” to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan (January 31-February 5), the Pope urged “an end to the violence” in the eastern DRC, calling for “working for security and the common good.” In South Sudan, added the head of the Catholic Church, who will travel there with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, “we want to join the people’s cry for peace and contribute to the process of national reconciliation.
In the South Caucasus, the Pontiff urged the parties to “respect the ceasefire” and called for the release of military and civilian prisoners, without directly mentioning Armenia or Azerbaijan. While the ceasefire in Yemen, signed last October, is “holding,” he regretted that “many civilians continue to die because of the mines.” In Ethiopia, the Pope hoped “that the process of pacification will continue and that the commitment of the international community to address the humanitarian crisis affecting the country will be strengthened.”
Another subject of concern for the Pope is the situation in West Africa, “increasingly afflicted by the violence of terrorism.” He mentioned the “tragedies being experienced by the people of Burkina Faso, Mali and Nigeria,” urging respect for the “legitimate aspirations” of the people in Sudan, Mali, Chad, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
Also focusing on the situation in Burma, the Pope invited the international community to “work for reconciliation processes to become a reality,” urging “all parties concerned to resume the path of dialogue.” He wished “peace,” “prosperity” and “harmony” to all the people of the Korean peninsula.
Throughout his address, the Pope also spoke of the social tensions caused by the “weakening” of democracy in many parts of the world.
He cited the “political crises in several countries of the American continent,” naming Peru and Haiti in particular. And the situation in Lebanon, which the Pontiff assured he follows closely, pending the election of a new President of the Republic. “I hope that all political actors will commit themselves to allow the country to recover from the dramatic economic and social situation in which it finds itself,” he said.
In the context of the search for peace, he also recalled the position of the Holy See on the possession of nuclear weapons: It is “immoral,” said the Pope, concerned about the “impasse” in the negotiations of the Iranian Nuclear Agreement and calling for “full disarmament” because “no peace is possible where instruments of death are spread.”
The right to life and respect for the human person
In his address, Pope Francis devoted a long passage to respect for the “right to life” from conception to death. As he regularly does, he deplored the “so-called ‘right to abortion,'” arguing that “no one can claim rights over the life of another human being, especially one who is powerless and thus completely defenseless.”
The Pontiff renewed his call for the “eradication of the throwaway culture,” which also affects “the sick, the disabled and the elderly.”
While some countries have moved forward or are considering the possibility of introducing medical assistance in dying, the Pope was firm: “States have the primary responsibility to guarantee assistance to citizens at every stage of human life, until natural death.”
For the Pope, this right to life also includes the absolute rejection of the death penalty, which is “always inadmissible.” He called for its abolition throughout the world. “We cannot forget that a person can be converted and can change up until the last moment,” he insisted. In this passage, the Pope mentioned a country that practices the death penalty, Iran, where demonstrations are calling for more “respect for the dignity of women.”
The right to religious freedom
“I cannot fail to mention … the fact that one in seven Christians is persecuted,” Pope Francis lamented in his speech. More broadly, he expressed concern that a third of the world’s population lives in a situation where religious freedom is limited. For the Pontiff, this freedom must be “universally recognized” because, far from being a source of conflict, religious belief is, on the contrary, an “effective opportunity for dialogue and encounter between different peoples and cultures.”
The head of the Catholic Church did not only point out the violence against Christians in the world. He also denounced situations where countries reduce the possibility of believers “to express their convictions in the sphere of social life, in the name of an erroneous understanding of inclusion.”
“Religious freedom, which cannot be reduced to mere freedom of worship, is one of the minimum conditions for living in dignity,” he insisted, asking governments “to protect it, and to guarantee to everyone […] the possibility of acting according to their conscience, including in public life and in the exercise of their profession.”
Criticism of multilateralism and so-called progress
In the face of these dramatic situations, the Pope offered a critique of the multilateral system and “alliance blocs,” noting “growing polarizations and attempts to impose a single thought.” He suggested a reform of multilateral bodies “avoiding mechanisms that give more weight to some at the expense of others.”
The Pope denounced an “ideological totalitarianism that promotes intolerance towards those who do not adhere to the so-called positions of ‘progress,’ which in reality seem to lead to a general regression of humanity, to the violation of freedom of thought and conscience.” Without naming any particular country, he spoke out against the “ideological colonizations” carried out “in the poorest countries, creating a direct link between the granting of economic aid and the acceptance of these ideologies.”
“Wherever one seeks to impose on other cultures forms of thought that are not their own, one opens the way to violent opposition and sometimes even violence,” the Pontiff warned. He invoked education as a tool for peace, and to remedy the “fear of life.” Pointing to an ongoing “educational catastrophe,” he called on states to “have the courage to reverse the unbalanced and regrettable ratio between public spending on education and funds allocated to armaments.”
Women, migration, ecology
Continuing his plea for the most vulnerable in this world, the Pope spoke out in defense of women, “considered second-class citizens in many countries.” The exclusion of women from education, especially Afghan women, is unacceptable, he said.
He deplored once again the “shipwreck of our civilization” in the Mediterranean, which has become “a great tomb” of migrants. It is “urgent to strengthen the normative framework in Europe,” the Pope insisted, so that “the necessary operations of assistance and care for the shipwrecked do not weigh entirely on the populations of the main landing places.”
Calling for the fight against “every form of exploitation” in the workplace, the Pope also focused on the environment, mentioning the effects of climate change in Pakistan, which has been hit by floods; in the Pacific Ocean, “where global warming is causing innumerable damages to fisheries”; in Somalia and throughout the Horn of Africa, “where drought is causing serious famine”; and in the United States, “where sudden and intense frosts have caused deaths.”
Vatican diplomatic advances
Finally, the Bishop of Rome praised the year’s diplomatic achievements, praising “the choice of Switzerland, the Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Azerbaijan to appoint resident ambassadors to Rome,” as well as the new bilateral agreements with São Tomé and Príncipe and Kazakhstan.
He reserved a few words for the renewal of the provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops signed between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China “in the framework of a respectful and constructive dialogue.”
“I hope that this relationship of collaboration can develop in favor of the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people,” he said.
The Successor of Peter expressed his gratitude to the authorities of the countries represented “for the messages of condolence that were received on the occasion of the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as well as for the closeness shown during the funeral” on January 5.
*To date, the Holy See has official diplomatic relations with 183 countries. On November 4, it announced that it had agreed to establish relations with the Sultanate of Oman. Including this new country, the Holy See will therefore maintain diplomatic relations with 184 states.
The countries that do not currently have diplomatic relations with the Holy See are Bhutan, Brunei, China, Comoros, Laos, North Korea, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tuvalu and Vietnam.
In Brunei, Comoros, Laos and Somalia, the Holy See has apostolic delegates, and in Vietnam, a “pontifical representative.”