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Work on peace in our hearts

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

In the past few weeks, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has spoken out strongly and often about peace. He is prodding us to think about peace in both the large and the small details of life. In the large sense, for example, we who bear the name and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ hope to bring peace to a terrible civil war, like Syria’s. This is why Pope Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace on Sept. 7, and why we can continue to pray and offer our sacrifices for that end. In the small sense, we work for peace by, for example, refusing to engage in destructive social behaviors like gossip and slander. Pope Francis preached powerfully last Friday about the harm caused by such violations of the Eighth Commandment.

It may seem that peace in the larger sense is beyond the ability of most of us to affect. In part, that appearance is true. How we live our lives as believers here in Iowa doesn’t immediately change the violence caused and suffered by others halfway around the world. But there is still a connection. We do have the capacity, as simple believers, to change the world for the better. After all, it is Christ’s life in us, and Christ’s power in us, that does the changing!

First, we need to work for peace in our own hearts. That means a commitment to constant prayer, examination of conscience, and frequent Confession, rooting out our own sins. “The one who would be my disciple must take up his cross and follow me.” The ancient Fathers loved to speak of the Cross as both a yoke and a plow.

The Cross is a yoke because by it we are joined side-by-side with Christ in His work of salvation, like two oxen working perfectly in step. Under its constant guidance, we can’t wander off from His path, or pull ahead or lag behind. The more we strive to work with Christ, rather than apart from Him or against Him, the more we will find a deep well of interior peace sustaining us against daily temptations. And Christ Himself tells us, “My yoke is easy” to bear.

The Cross is also a plow, because with it God cultivates our hearts, to make them fertile for growing His Word. The stones of sin that lie deep in our hearts are plowed up and pushed aside by the Cross. The hard soil of anger or resentment is loosened and watered. Soil exhausted by the trials and suffering of this world is fertilized with the holy Eucharist. The seeds of the Gospel, like the mustard seed in Christ’s parable, take deeper root and grow more abundantly.

Second, as we make a little progress in this path of continuing conversion, we have something to offer our family and friends, our coworkers and neighbors. Living close to Christ in our hearts, we bring Him closer to those around us. We will have, and can share, some measure of that peace that only He can give. This is the peace that does not return evil for evil, but returns good instead. This is the peace that turns away from anger and impatience, offering forgiveness and kindness to those daily provocations. This is grace, that God pours into our hearts and lets spill over into the lives of those around us.

It’s important for us to remember that we don’t have to be perfect to let this grace help others too. As long as we live this life, we will remain sinners. What we must be is repentant. “A humble and contrite heart, O God, you will not spurn.” Our repentance, not our total avoidance of sin, is what keeps us coming back to Christ again and again to beg for, and to receive, His forgiveness. Of course, we try to be stronger and to sin less, but even as sinners, simply being forgiven makes it possible for us to forgive others. Simply receiving peace from God enables us to offer peace to others.

What’s true at the local level is also true at the national level, and at the international level. The closer all of us are to God, the better our whole country will be – the more just our laws, the less scandalous our leaders, the less corrupt our culture, the more generous and prudent the use of our wealth and military might. Again, I repeat, I’m not trying to paint a picture of some unrealistic ideal of a nation not comprised of sinners. We are and will remain sinners until we die in this life. But a community or a nation or a world made up of repentant sinners is a far more welcoming and peaceful place than one made up of the unrepentant and hard of heart.

Our actions always speak loudly. If we are close to Christ in our hearts, our actions will show it. If we are far from Christ in our hearts, our actions will show that, too. All of us can work for peace in the world by bringing our faith in Christ to bear on the little things, every day. May our carrying of the Cross in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ be a visible and effective witness to His saving love!

Your brother in Christ,

Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless,
Bishop of Sioux City

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