VATICAN CITY — A trickle of pilgrims soon turned into a flood as the vigil of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and throughout the world got under way at 7pm on Saturday.

As the vast crowd eventually spilled over into the central boulevard leading to St. Peter’s Square, it was clear the vigil was going to be something extraordinary.

The Vatican estimated the number of those taking part to be around 100,000, appropriately about the number of casualties estimated since Syria’s conflict began two and a half years ago.

Pope Francis had called for the special day of prayer and fasting after a chemical-weapons attack in Syria allegedly killed more than 1,400 people on Aug. 21, according to the U.S. government. The U.S. government contends the Assad regime is behind the attack.

Critics say the Obama administration risks escalating the conflict if it goes ahead with air strikes as a punishment for the use of banned chemical weapons. The Holy Father, the region’s Christians and the balance of Western public opinion are opposed to such punitive action.

Greeted with a few cheers from the crowd, the welcome was muted. There was no fanfare, no papal wave. The Pope, whose facial expressions can effortlessly exude joy and warmth, looked nothing but grave, solemn and prayerful throughout.

In his homily that followed a recitation of the Rosary to music and meditations from the writing of St. Therese of Lisieux, Pope Francis began by quoting from the Book of Genesis when God, after looking at his creation of the world, declares: “It is good.”


Withdrawal Into Selfishness

But he reminded those present that a world of “harmony and peace” has to be desired and carried in our hearts. True freedom, he stressed, means choosing paths that lead to the good of all, guided by love.

By contrast, violence, division, disagreement and war occur when man “stops contemplating beauty and goodness and withdraws into his own selfishness.”

“When man thinks only of himself, of his own interests and places himself in the center, when he permits himself to be captivated by the idols of dominion and power, when he puts himself in God’s place, then all relationships are broken, and everything is ruined; then the door opens to violence, indifference and conflict,” he warned.

The consequences of the Fall are that man “enters into conflict with himself” and “breaks harmony with creation,” he continued. But he stressed that harmony cannot come from disharmony because there is “no such thing as ‘disharmony’; there is either harmony or we fall into chaos, where there is violence, argument, conflict, fear.”

Recalling the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the Pope exhorted the pilgrims to be their brother’s keeper.

“To be human means to care for one another,” he said. “But when harmony is broken, a metamorphosis occurs: The brother who is to be cared for and loved becomes an adversary to fight, to kill.”

Surveying the number of conflicts around the world today, the Holy Father said they were continuing “as if it were normal [to] continue to sow destruction, pain, death!” But he warned: “Violence and war lead only to death; they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!”


Change Is Possible

Francis insisted it is possible to change direction, to exit this spiral of sorrow and death. Invoking Our Lady, Queen of Peace, he said peace was possible for everyone, but “each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations” has to respond: “Yes, we want it!”

He then turned to the crucial importance of the cross in bringing peace.

“Violence is not answered with violence; death is not answered with the language of death,” Pope Francis said. “In the silence of the cross, the uproar of weapons ceases, and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue and peace is spoken.”

He called on all to leave behind “the self-interest that hardens your heart” and to “overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others.” Conquer your deadly reasoning, he said, and “open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation.”

“May the noise of weapons cease! War always marks the failure of peace; it is always a defeat for humanity,” the Pope said in closing, and he recalled the words of Pope Paul VI at the United Nations in 1965: “No more one against the other; no more, never! ... War never again; never again war!”

“Forgiveness, dialogue, reconciliation --- these are the words of peace, in beloved Syria, in the Middle East, in all the world!” Francis said. “Let us pray for reconciliation and peace; let us work for reconciliation and peace, and let us all become, in every place, men and women of reconciliation and peace! Amen.”


Salus Populi Romani

The vigil began with an image of Mary known as Salus Populi Romani (Protectress of the Roman People) being processed up to the altar, where it remained to serve as an inspiration for prayer. Following his homily, Pope Francis joined tens of thousands of people in silent adoration before the Eucharist and clutched his own pectoral cross as he did so.

After the Liturgy of the Hours prayers, the evening concluded with Benediction at around midnight.

“It made me proud to be a Catholic,” said one onlooker, while another was impressed by the extent of the participation, especially of young people.

The Holy Father returned to the importance of the way of the cross in his Angelus address the following day. He thanked those who had participated in the vigil and those across the world who held their own vigil and prayed and fasted for peace. 

He also strongly criticized the arms trade and their proliferation on the black market, blaming many wars on such commerce. “These are the enemies we must fight, united and coherent, following no other interests but those of peace and of the common good,” he said.

After reciting the Angelus, he pinpointed the need to pray for Lebanon, “that it may find its hoped-for stability,” and for Iraq, “so that the sectarian violence may lead to reconciliation.” He also asked for prayers for “the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians” and for Egypt, “so that all Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, may commit themselves to build up together a society dedicated to the good of the whole population.”

Each person must fight for peace, but it is a personal and more profound battle that entails “a strong and courageous decision to renounce evil and its seductions and to choose the good,” the Pope said.

It requires sacrifice, patience and perseverance, he added, but that is a true “taking up of the cross.”


Answered Prayers?

As of Monday, it looked as if the collective Catholic prayers might be working: Responding to the possibility that Syria would surrender its chemical weapons to international control, President Barack Obama told Fox News that he was now open to negotiations on an alternative plan that could avert a military strike.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent

and is a contributor to EWTN News Nightly.