One of the most dramatic signs of our time is the presence of people on the move. There are more internally displaced people or refugees in the world now than since the end of the Second World War. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than the plight of the Syrian refugees, and the war which has displaced 12 million people – half the Syrian population – and killed between a quarter million and a half million people in five years of a fratricidal war.
The Second Vatican Council reminds us of “the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (GS, §4). Signs of the time are those signs that characterize a particular time of history, and we need only to open our eyes to see them: poverty and inequality, violence and war, global warming and droughts, racism and religious intolerance, migrants and refugees.
These are the signs of the time, the root causes of the pain and suffering in the world, the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Ignacio Ellacuria, the martyred Jesuit from El Salvador, identified the sign of our time as “the crucified peoples” of the world. Those who unmask the dominant violence of the world, those who bear the sins for which others are responsible: systemic injustice, institutional violence, global inequality, racism and xenophobia.
Nor can we ignore the U.S. role in wars, military interventions, sanctions, and trillions of dollars that have devastated the people of Iraq for decades, and laid the foundation for a fratricidal war in Syria. The great Jewish prophet, Abraham Joshua Heschel, reminded us: “Some are guilty, all are responsible.” If guilty, then we must confess our guilt and refrain from doing further harm.
At the recent gathering of Pax Christi International and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome, participants from around the world – many of them who bore in their flesh the wounds of war, and all who bore in their hearts the passion for peace – rejected just war and endorsed instead “a new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence.” The final statement of the participants read:
“Clearly, the Word of God, the witness of Jesus, should never be used to justify violence, injustice or war. We confess that the people of God have betrayed this central message of the Gospel many times, participating in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation and discrimination.”
Some are guilty, but all are responsible, all of us can do something to minimize the violence and to lay the foundation for a more just and sustainable peace. Signs of the time are not only the grave evils that characterize our age, they are also signs of God’s presence and compassion in the world, an invitation to mercy, a call to justice, and the urgent demand to forge an enduring peace and sustainable future: for the poor, for the planet and for generations to come.
From the very beginning of his ministry, Pope Francis has reminded us in word and deed that the heart of the Gospel is mercy, a mercy rooted in compassion but also in justice. For every sign of the time that characterizes our age, there is also a sign of God’s mercy, compassion, and justice.
Most recently, Pope Francis offered that sign at the U.S. – Mexico border to Central American and Mexican immigrants fleeing violence in the hemisphere, and at the Greek Island of Lesbos to Syrian refugees fleeing a fratricidal war in the Middle East. His message is simple: “Open your hearts, open your borders, open your churches and homes to those who are fleeing violence.” He reminded all of us, but particularly the leaders of Western nations, that Christians are called not to build walls but to build bridges.
This week we celebrate the fifth week of Easter, and we are reminded that Easter is more than a day, it is a season. Traditionally, it was a time in which the newly baptized were introduced into the mysteries of the faith, a journey of discipleship and an invitation to bear witness to the risen Christ: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Is this not the message to which the Gospel invites us today?
There is, however, always a “cost” to discipleship, as the twentieth century martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hung by the Nazis, reminds us: Gospel discipleship is costly “because it costs a person their life,” but it is grace “because it gives a person the only true life.” Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker, was fond of quoting Father Zossima from The Brothers Karamazov: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” John of the Cross proclaimed: “Where there is no love, put love, and there you will find love.” But, as Pope Francis reminds us, to bear witness to love – often at great sacrifice to one’s own interests and sometimes one’s well-being – is to experience the joy of the Gospel.
So we are on an Easter journey, in a season of compassion. Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb; then to the disciples and to Thomas, standing before them with open wounds in his hands and in his side; then to the crowds in Galilee; then to the disciples by the lake; and today to us. In every migrant or refugee, in every hungry or thirsty child, in every prisoner or victim of war, in every girl or woman exploited or abused, the risen Christ appears to us, his wounds visible in his hands and side with a simple message: “Believe.” “Follow me.” “Feed my sheep.” “Love one another.”
Throughout this Easter season we are invited to offer signs of resurrection in a world filled with crosses. We are invited to continue this Easter journey with eyes wide open, to see the risen Christ in our midst. We renew our commitment to bear witness to the peace of Christ. We know that we are always on the road, on a Gospel journey, but we know, too, that we are not alone. We are surrounded by that cloud of witnesses who journey with us – those holy women and men, the martyrs and the saints – and we are strengthened by their presence. We are no longer afraid, we have bread for the journey, and we carry the joy of the Gospel in our hearts.
The risen Christ appeared to the disciples – and to us today – with his wounds: the risen Christ is the crucified Jesus. Like the risen Christ, we, too, bear our wounds in our hands and feet and in our hearts. But now these wounds have become life-giving wounds, wounds that bind us more deeply to Christ’s suffering in the world and to the power of Christ’s resurrection to break even the bonds of death, to heal the wounds of violence, to abolish forever the scourge of war.