VATICAN CITY—“When we turn our gaze to the events of the century about to end, the two world wars pass before our eyes: the cemeteries, the graves of those who died, the destroyed families, the crying and desperation, the misery and suffering. … How can we forget the death camps, the children of Israel cruelly exterminated, and the holy martyrs, Father Maximilian Kolbe, Sister Edith Stein and others?”

While looking back in sorrow on the lessons of the past century, Pope John Paul II began the new year by issuing a passionate call for peace throughout the globe. At a Peace Mass, celebrated in the Vatican Jan. 1, the pope pinpointed respect for the rights and dignity of the human person as the key to enduring peace—the theme of his own message for the World Day of Peace, which the church celebrates on New Year's Day.

At the conclusion of the the traditional two-hour liturgy in St. Peter's Basilica, the Pope, looking rested after nearly a week at his villa outside Rome, asked for prayers so that “the representatives of states show a generous willingness and an active commitment at the hour of welcoming and carrying to fulfillment humanity's irrepressible and fruitful desire for understanding and peace.”

In reviewing the events of the last 100 years, the pope said Christians should look at the world situation with hope and realism—hope founded in the belief that the world has been liberated from sin by Christ crucified, and realism based on the recognition that, all too often, “humanity gives in to the influence of evil.”

“However, aided by grace, humanity continually gets up again and, guided by the strength of redemption, proceeds toward good,” he added.

As the Pope went on to say, “The world is not only marked by the terrible heritage of sin, but is above all a world saved by the Son of God, crucified and risen from the dead … Therefore, we believe that, upon entering the third millennium with Christ, we cooperate in transforming the world he redeemed.”

The pontiff called on the international community to surmount the “great and difficult” problems that give birth to conflict in our time, and called attention to the continuing moral failure on a global scale that has marked the the 20th century: “Before our eyes we have the results of ideologies such as Marxism, Nazism and Fascism, and also of myths like racial superiority, nationalism, and ethnic exclusionism.”

Further, the Holy Father warned against a complacency which would confine these moral failures to the dustbin of history or to pockets of unrest in the contemporary world. In pointed reference to prosperous, developed lands, the Pope continued: “No less pernicious, though not always as obvious, are the effects of materialistic consumerism, in which the negative effects on others are considered completely irrelevant?”

At the same time, the pontiff emphasized that “[o]ur century is also the century of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary,” adding that “the desire for peace, which motivated the United Nations Assembly to proclaim the rights of man, continues today to invigorate the efforts of all people of good will who desire to construct a world ever more just and united.” He continued by explaining his motive in centering his Peace Day message around respect for human rights: “Recognizing the innate dignity of all members of the human family … is the foundation of liberty, justice and peace in the world.”

One central point in the Pope's message regarded the indivisibility of human rights: “No affront to human dignity can be ignored, whatever its source, whatever actual form it takes and wherever it occurs.” Thus, the Pope took the opportunity to address a number of issues key to the propagation of human rights and dignity in today's worldm listing some rights which appear “particularly exposed to more or less open violation today.”

First among these is the right to life, with the Holy Father stressing that this right, which “guarantees to the unborn the right to come into the world, in the same way protects newborns, especially girls, from the crime of infanticide. Equally, it assures the handicapped that they can fully develop their capacities, and ensures adequate care for the sick and the elderly.”

The right to life also implicates the necessity of ethical criteria in genetic engineering, and the urgent need to reject “all forms of violence … poverty

… hunger… armed conflict … criminal trafficking in drugs and arms [and] … mindless damage to the natural environment.”

The Pope called on all peace movements, along with disarmament, anti-drug, and environmental advocates, to transcend their own “specialization,” and to promote and protect the right to life in totality.

Another fundamental right under threat is religious freedom—“the heart of human rights,” inasmuch as religion “shapes people's ‘vision of the world’” and “affects relationships with others.” In addition to every believer's right to live and express his or her faith, in public and in private, the Pope stressed the right of persons to change their religion. He cited countries which fail to recognize “the right to gather for worship,” and others which privilege one religion to the detriment of others, creating discrimination and marginalization.

Thus, the Pope expressed his concern with religious liberty, both in atheist countries such as China and Vietnam, and in certain theocratic religious nations, such as the fundamentalist Islamic states of the Middle East. Recalling the tension which prevails among “peoples of diverse religious convictions and cultures,” the pontiff joined other world religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama, in maintaining that “the use of violence can never claim true religious justification, nor can it foster the growth of true religious feeling.”

A third focus for the Pope was civil rights, including the right of the persons and nations to participate in the process in the larger community or in the community of nations, The Pope highlighted “certain economic problems,” discussed only by “limited circles,” which lead to the trend that “political and financial power is concentrated in a small number of governments or interest groups.” The Vatican information service FIDES explained the Pope's statements in reference to such institutions and events as the G8 group, the World Bank's development policies, and the International Monetary Fund's mistakes in policy regarding the Asian crisis.

Even more, the Holy Father cited “one of the most tragic forms of discrimination [as] the denial to ethnic groups and national minorities of the fundamental right to exist as such.” The Pope described “ethnic cleansing” as “a grave crime against humanity … [and a] violation of human dignity.” The recently instituted International Criminal Court “could gradually contribute to ensuring the effective protection of human rights on a world scale.”

Finally, the Pope called for a correction of the absolute criteria of the free market. He repeated his plea that the Grand Jubilee of 2000 be honored by the elimination or reduction of poor countrie’ international debt. He called, also, for responsibility for the environment, recalling that “placing human well-being at the center of concern for the environment is actually the surest way of safeguarding creation.”

The final paragraphs of the Pope's statement suggested an outline for furthering a “culture of human rights.” Reaffirming the indivisibility and universality of human rights, the Pope called on each individual and every nation to be concerned for the global situation. The duty to safeguard “the dignity of the poorest and the marginalized and to recognize in a practical way the rights of those who have no rights,” falls in particular to Christians. We are to keep in mind those who suffer from hunger or persecution, and “raise our voices on their behalf.” In the year before the Great Jubilee, the Pope says, this is the path to become imitators of the Father: “Does a woman forget the baby at her breast … even if these forget, I will never forget you.”

This article was compiled by Register staff from CNS and Zenit reports.