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The Holy Father, The One Who Pleads for Peace

Homily of H.E. Most Rev. Charles John Brown D.D., Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines

June 29, 2024 | Pope's Day Mass on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul

Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (The Manila Cathedral)

Your Eminence Jose F. Cardinal Advincula, Jr., Archbishop of Manila; Your Excellency, Mylo Hubert C. Vergara, Vice President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines; my brother bishops; distinguished ambassadors and members of the Diplomatic Corps, priests, Papal Awardees, Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta; Knights and Dames of the Order of Holy Sepulchre; consecrated women and men; lay faithful; brothers and sisters in Christ:

It is truly a joy and a privilege for me to be with you again this evening for our annual Pope's Day Mass. This liturgy which we traditionally celebrate each June 29th in this beautiful cathedral of the Archdiocese of Manila, on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the Apostles of the City of Rome.

Persecution and Martyrdom

In the First Reading (Acts 12:1-11) of our Mass this evening, we have heard how King Herod had James, the brother of John put to death by the sword, and then imprisoned St. Peter. The name King Herod is familiar to all of us. Principally because of another King Herod, not the one mentioned in the reading this evening, but his grandfather: the King Herod who massacred all the baby boys of Bethlehem, in an insane and paranoid attempt to kill the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:16-18). In these two instances: the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem and the martyrdom of St. James, we see how at the beginning of the history of Christianity, the power of the state was hostile to the Catholic faith.

That situation of persecution and martyrdom, continued for some three centuries; and includes the martyrdom of the saints we honor this evening, St. Peter and Paul, martyred in Rome, in approximately the Year 64 (C.E.) under Emperor Nero. As well as the history of all the heroic virgin martyrs of the early church: Saints Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and so many others. That situation of persecution changed with the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in the Year 313 (C.E.).

The Saints and Protectors of Rome

So today, brothers and sisters, if you make a pilgrimage to Rome, and you visit the Vatican Museums, as most of you do, the Vatican Museums which were originally part of the living quarters, the apartments of the Pope, and you pause for a moment in the famous Raphael’s Rooms (Le Stanze di Raffaello), named for the great artist of the High Renaissance (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known in English as Raphael). You will see there a fresco depicting a dramatic scene. In the center of the painting, you will see a ruler on a black horse looking up into the sky above with an expression of amazement and trepidation on his face. He's looking up at two saints. The two saints whom we honor today: Saints Peter and Paul, who are depicted here in the sanctuary in these two beautiful statues. 

In the painting, Peter, like in the statue here, holding the keys, the keys of the kingdom of God, referred to in tonight's gospel (Matthew 16:13-19), and Paul holding the sword by which he had suffered martyrdom in the City of Rome. Then underneath Saints Peter and Paul in the painting, there is below the serene figure of a Pope on a white horse, with his right hand extended in a gesture of benevolent blessing.

Encounter of Pope Leo the Great with Attila, courtesy of Vatican Museums

Let me give you some historical context. That painting was completed in the year 1514; but it represents something which happened more than a thousand years earlier. In 452 (C.E.), Attila, or as the Italians call him Attila, King and chieftain of the Hunnic Empire, after having invaded and devastated Gaul (now occupied by France and Belgium) moved south into what is now Italy. In July of 452, his armies completely destroyed the city of, which, I, your nuncio, am the titular Archbishop, the Roman City of Aquileia.

Attila then turned his sights on Rome as his next victim. At this point, the city was paralyzed with fear. Three representatives were chosen to go out from Rome to travel north, and to meet Attila. To try to persuade him to spare Rome, to convince him to choose the path of peace, and not the path of war. They were two imperial officials: Avienus and Trigetius. The third was the Bishop of Rome: the pope, known to us as Pope St. Leo the Great, who, as Edward Gibbon tells us in his famous history of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “Pope Leo consented to expose his life for the safety of this flock”. It was indeed a risky and dangerous mission. Attila was known for his extraordinary cruelty.

Raphael’s painting in what is now the Vatican Museums represents what happened at the moment that the three representatives met with Attila. At the moment he met Pope Leo, Attila had a miraculous vision of two saints hovering in the sky above the Pope—Saints Peter and Paul, the Saints and Protectors of Rome. So, seeing this vision, Attila decided to abandon his plan to attack Rome, and the City of Rome was saved.

One Who Pleads for Peace

Why am I talking to you this evening, about Raphael's painting of Pope Leo meeting Attila, something that took place more than 1500 years ago? It is because it represents something essential to the mission of the Pope. That is why the painting itself was commissioned in the 16th Century. The painting is illustrative of the role of the Holy Father, the successor of Peter as one who pleads for peace.

It's important to note that in 452, in searching for the path to peace with Attila, Pope Leo the Great, did not substitute himself for the authorities of the government. He didn't go alone to meet Attila. He went with two Roman imperial officials. This is indicative of the role of the Pope, and by extension of the Holy See, and its diplomatic activity in the world. The Holy See is there alongside the political authorities, respecting the autonomy and the independence of the political order; but always working and cooperating in the search for peace. It was true in 452, and it is true today.

The Path to Peace

In January of this year, in the same Apostolic Palace, where the painting of Raphael is located, Pope Francis met with all the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, as he does every year, in January. In his address to the diplomats, Pope Francis spoke about the “growing number of conflicts that are slowly turning what I have often called ‘a third world war fought piecemeal’ into a genuine global conflict”.

This is a phrase that Pope Francis has used before: “una terza guerra mondiale a pezzi,” which risks becoming a full-blown global conflict. In that speech, Pope Francis used the phrase “the path to peace”, four times. Saying…

  • The path to peace calls for respect for life, for every human life, starting with the life of the unborn child in the mother’s womb…

  • The path to peace calls for respect for human rights, in accordance with the simple yet clear formulation contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…

  • The path to peace also passes through interreligious dialogue, which before all else requires the protection of religious freedom and respect for minorities…

  • Finally, the path to peace passes through education, which is the principal means of investing in the future and in young people…

Importance of Dialogue

In striving for the path to peace, the Holy Father emphasized the importance of dialogue. He said, “Dialogue, must be the soul of the international community.” He lamented the fact that, and I quote, “The current situation is also the result of the weakening of structures of multilateral diplomacy that arose after the Second World War. Organizations established to foster security, peace and cooperation are no longer capable of uniting all their members around one table.” The Pope expressed concern about the fragmentation and polarization, which is now so dangerously present in our world.

In 452, Pope Leo and the imperial officials went out to meet the enemies. Indeed, to dialogue with the enemy. The result was the achievement of peace and security for the City of Rome. Pope Francis is asking for the same kind of action in today's context of polarization. That is, the courage to leave our places of comfort, and to go out and undertake the risk of dialogue.

As the Pope said just two days ago, 48 hours ago in Rome, and I quote, “With war, a senseless and inconclusive venture, no one emerges a winner: everyone ends up defeated because war, from the very beginning, is always already a defeat.”


So, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, with these thoughts in our mind this evening, gathered as we are in this cathedral dedicated to Our Lady's Immaculate Conception, allow me to conclude my reflections for this Pope's Day 2024 by asking all of us to turn to Our Lady, under her ancient title as “Salus Populi Romani”, as “Protectress of the People of Rome”, of the City of Rome. Let us pray to her for Pope Francis on this feast day. Let us pray for the Church in Rome, and throughout the entire world. Let us pray, especially this evening for peace.

May God bless you, and happy fiesta!


Mentioned Addresses of His Holiness Pope Francis

  1. Address of his Holiness Pope Francis to Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to The Holy See.  Monday, 8 January 2024

  2. Address of his Holiness Pope Francis to the Participants in the Meeting of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches (R.O.A.C.O.). Thursday, 27 June 2024

Transcribed by Joel V. Ocampo

Photos from Manila Cathedral Facebook page

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