“If you want peace, work for justice.”
The theme of this afternoon’s convocation is a quotation from Pope Paul VI on the World Day of Peace in January 1972. What can be a more fitting theme than this — twenty years after 9/11; the present violence in Afghanistan; the military dictatorship in Myanmar, the killings in the Philippines and elsewhere. Let me give three points of reflections on this theme.
Peace is the Fruit of Justice
First: “Peace is the fruit of justice.” When it was first said in 1972, the advocacy then was for disarmament in the context of the arms race during the Cold War. When Pope Paul VI appeared in front of the United Nations in 1965, he said: “Let the arms fall from your hands. A person with offensive weapons in his hands cannot love.”
But the Church knows that peace is beyond just maintaining the delicate balance of world power. “Shalom,” the Hebrew word for peace, also means achieving justice and equality for each and for all.
Fast forward to our surveillance society. Pope Francis writes: “When any society is willing to leave a part of itself on the fringes, no amount of resources spent on law enforcement and surveillance can guarantee real peace.”
We all know that the main cause of violence is discrimination and inequality. These contrasts are so glaring: some throw out tons of food while others eat our left-overs in the garbage dump; some multinational companies enrich themselves by the billions through extracting minerals in some distant country while their indigenous inhabitants are killed because they resisted; some have the luxury to refuse COVID-19 vaccines while many others do not have access, even if they badly want to because their whole communities are dying.
Like some of you, I teach on weekdays, check papers and do office work. But on weekends, I help in the garbage dump parish where my Vincentian confreres work. When [Philippine] President [Rodrigo] Duterte launched his famous “war on drugs” in the Philippines, police began to just barge into small shanties of the poor and shoot young men whom they suspected to be drug addicts. There is an estimate of 30,000 people killed all over the country.
A young widow confided to me: “If we only had a sturdier home, the police could not have easily come in. They could not have easily killed my husband.” Not to have a home is already a violation of human dignity. In her case, it is a violation of the right to life!
It is good news for this academic community therefore to celebrate people who help make life more or less equal for everyone. When the Vincentian Family Coalition lobbies against homelessness at the United Nations; when Dr. Larry Boone empowers parish workers with management skills to make the parish an inclusive and equal place; when Ms. Anna Roccio helps provide skills to give access to primary education to children of incarcerated women in Tanzania; when Dr. Katherine Hutchinson leads her team in Vincentian service to our St. John’s students; when the needs of the sick are attended by the New Life Community Health Center — their work of compassionate justice brings us peace.
The Africans have a beautiful saying: “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” St. Vincent knew this too well — that the poor suffer and die because of the games of the powerful. His confrontation with the Prime Minister of France then, Cardinal Mazarin, is well known. “Your Eminence, sacrifice yourself. Save France! Throw yourself to the sea to appease the storm.” After some time, Vincent lost his position at the Council of Conscience. Work for justice and critique of power have their corresponding price.
This produces real fear for us who are critical to the Duterte regime today. I would like to honor today more than a hundred people who are persecuted in the work of justice — some of them my friends — who are sued in courts or have landed in jail; some are in hiding, and others were killed.
Peace is the Fruit of Love
Second, let me turn to the other side of the peace coin. Peace is not only the fruit of justice; it is also the fruit of love. There is no way to separate the two. On the one hand, the work of charity must be done rightly — with fairness and justice. On the other hand, the struggle for justice must be done lovingly — with kindness and tenderness. This dialectical relationship is the main message of Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti.
So, when the Little Sisters of the Poor offer their whole lives and ministry to offer a sense of welcome and family to each and every sick person regardless of money, creed or color; or that Dr. Hutchinson takes care of every sick student and their needs; or Anna Rocchio sews face mask for others—all of them give a concrete face to peace as the fruit of love and tenderness.
A good reminder comes from the last scene of the movie Monsieur Vincent. The old St. Vincent was sending off a young DC for the first time to help in the soup kitchen in the streets of Paris. Sr. Jeanne is a fictional character. I am happy she is because it can be also you and me that Vincent was addressing to. “Sr. Jeanne,” he said, “you will find out that Charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the kettle of soup and the full basket. But be gentle. Keep you smile. Because it is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them.” It shows that peace can only be achieved by love and tenderness.
Pathways to Peace and Justice
Thirdly, St. Vincent always asks us to end with praxis. What do I see as some pathways to peace?
a. The Way of Non-Violence. In the context of the global populism where a new “world war is fought piecemeal” — and Asia has become a boiling cauldron ready to explode or has already exploded — we need to recover Pope Paul VI’s initial intuition and condemn war in all its forms. The cries of innocent women, children and refugees, the sight of irreversible environmental degradation makes any theology of “just war” immoral and untenable in our times. But beyond just condemning war, we are asked to opt for a life of non-violence and tenderness with others as in Fratelli Tutti, and with the rest of creation as in Laudato Si.
b. A Way of Learning. Being part of a global network of Vincentian universities and ministries, international collaborative learning might be the way to go. As you accorded me hospitality here, I also welcome you to do teaching, academic service learning and research on my side of the world. I am referring to Adamson University, St. John’s sister university outside the US, but also to many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where the Vincentian Family serves. In the process, our researches done together can also take stock of how violence are reproduced on a different ground, with a different face, from a different lens. For, as we know, anti-racism, diversity and inclusion — the bywords of St. John’s University — challenge us to go beyond our professional, congregational and national boundaries. We hope that we can reflexively see our own complicity in the process of their victimization, and generate more inclusive and liberating solutions.
c. The Way of the Poor. As Vincentians, we are asked to immerse ourselves regularly in the experiences of poor communities, and allow their everyday practices of survival to interrogate the canons of our disciplinary specializations. Let us allow them to disturb our complacency and our otherwise routine lives. Let the perspective of the victims be our own optic in our critique of economic, political, racial and even religious power. But let us also remember that critique of power and fight for justice has its price.
Let me go back to the widows of Payatas — the garbage dump parish I was talking about. In my future talks, I will tell about the hope and resistance that can be found in these “rough grounds.” I am grateful to the Vincentian Center of Church and Society for providing me with these opportunities in the coming months.
But today let me end with one story of courage and hope.
Remy — a 90-year old grandmother — had to take care of her seven small grandchildren orphaned by the killing of their father, Juan. One of those children saw how they shot her father. Recently, I asked Remy if she is willing to testify against Duterte’s crime against humanity at the International Criminal Court which started last week. I asked if she is not afraid to do so. “I have nothing to be afraid of. They have already killed my son. What else do I have to lose?” “But in the meantime,” she said, “I need to help in taking care of my grandchildren. I will love them in honor of my son.”
We heard St. Vincent say: “The poor have so much to teach you.” And here is Remy — she just summarized for us the theme we are reflecting on today.
She was already crying when she told me this: “They would like to kill us, Father. They want us dead. But no! We will show them that we will live.”
My fellow Vincentians and followers of the Vincentian charism, let me say this today: the victims of our society, despite the deaths they undergo each day, truly desire to live. Let us make them live. Let us help them live — and in the words of St. Vincent — “with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows”.
This was delivered by Father Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, C.M., Vincentian chair for Social Justice, at St. John’s University in New York on Sept. 23, 2021. Father Pilario is a Filipino theologian, professor, and pastor of an urban poor community in the outskirts of the Philippine capital.