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Peace On Earth: Cuban Missile Crisis and a Papal Encyclical

In the 1968 movie Shoes of the Fisherman, the world lives in the shadow of a possible nuclear holocaust due to a feud between China and the Soviet Union. In an unexpected move, the newly elected Pope visits Russia as an ambassador for peace and upon his return, he announces to the crowds in Saint Peter’s Square the decision to sell the property of the Church in order to help the Chinese people who faced a possible famine because of US trade restrictions. Half a century later, peace is still under a constant threat and phrases like nuclear war and destruction have appeared once again in our daily vocabulary. We need to ask ourselves: is peace possible in a world obsessed with war? And if it is, how can it be achieved?

Figure 1: Frontpage of the Daily Scetch (1962)

Fiction was almost turned into reality during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union nearly turned nuclear, thus bringing the world to the edge of a catastrophe (Stern, 2005). Americans who lived through the Crisis were in certain fear that nuclear war with the USSR was soon to happen. In the midst of the Crisis, an unexpected ambassador of peace rose from the seat of Saint Peter in Rome. Pope John XXIII, who was elected Head of the Catholic Church in 1958, offered to mediate between President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev in an effort to avert a nuclear disaster between the two main protagonists of the Cold War. A few days later, the Crisis ended and a renewal of hope came to rise. To say that the papal influence played a significant role in solving the crisis would be an utter overstatement, mostly because the decisions and the solutions were provided by the White House and the Kremlin in the spirit of equal appeasement. Nonetheless, the Pope came to express the yearning for peace, a feeling shared by millions around the world during the Cold War era. In his efforts, he was even praised by the Soviet leader himself (McAndrews, 2008).

Figure 2: Pope John XXIII during 2nd Vatican Council (1962)

The beginning of this turbulent and eventful decade began with the Catholic Church going through a phase of self-contemplation and reorganization. At its head was a smiling priest (Il Papa buono, as he was called by his fellow countrymen) with new ideas and a spirit of innovation, which was meant to bring the Catholic Church into the 20th century and reconnect it with world without abandoning its traditions and identity. Simultaneously, and most importantly, this new religious figure held a conviction of human universality considering every man and woman a member of the global family (Benigni, Zancni, & Difabio, 2002). This new ecumenical spirit was mostly expressed in his last papal encyclical, only two months before his death. A papal encyclical has a considerable magnitude inside the Catholic Church and it signifies the authority of the Pope and his pastoral care.

Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) was published on Holy Thursday, April 11, 1963, and within its pages, the social teachings of the Catholic Church were presented to the world. Even though the encyclical contained nothing new as far as the moral dimension of the Catholic dogma is concerned, it began with a groundbreaking sentence. For the first time in the history of the Church, a papal encyclical was addressing, not only the Catholic brethren, but also every man of goodwill. In essence, Pope John was presenting the Catholic vision for the world and its prosperity. One fundamental question lies at the heart of this encyclical letter: what is the way to global peace? The answer is definite. Peace, according to the document, is a result of order, but this order must be achieved through consent, not force or violence. Simultaneously, the Pope calls for a New World Order on the basis of cooperation and trust between states that would eventually lead to nuclear disarmament and to solutions given by negotiations and not guns (Murray, 1963).

Figure 3: Bernini’s Holy Spirit window in St. Peter’s Basilica

As a vision of the world and its subsequent prosperity, the papal encyclical can seem utopic and it is true to say that it presents not solutions to global problems but guidelines. At its core lies a principle that has been expressed as an ecumenical and unassailable truth by other documents as well, like the American Declaration of Independence. The truth that all men and women are born equal, they have the same undeniable rights and belong to the same family, humanity. The New World Order that is proposed rises from love, compassion, and cooperation. Only in that way, according to the document, can peace be achieved. In its final sentences, the Pope calls all nations and every individual to break through the barriers that divide humanity and accept each other in their hearts as true brothers and sisters. Sixty years later, his wish is still unfulfilled, and peace on Earth has not been achieved.

Bibliographical references

Benigni, M., Zancni, G., & Difabio, E. (2002). John XXIII: The Official Biography. Pauline Books & Media.

McAndrews, L. J. (2008). Parallel Paths: Kennedy, the Church, and Nuclear War. American Catholic Studies, 119 (1) 1-28 .

Murray, J. (1963). The Peace That Comes of Order: Reflections upon the Encyclical “Pacem in Terris.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 52 (207). 294-311

Stern, S. M. (2005). The Week the World Stood Still. Amsterdam University Press.

Visual sources

Figure 1: Daily Scetch (1962). Frontpage. [Newspaper].

Figure 2: Walker, H. (1962). Pope John XXIII during 2nd Vatican Council. [Photograph].

Figure 3: Perry, B. (2018). Bernini's Holy Spirit Window in St. Peter's Basilica. [Photograph].

1 Comment

May 17, 2022

Very unique perspective but a bit short. I would expect more details

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Lefteris Kokkinis

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