Archdiocesan seminarian serves at pope francis’ peace vigil
by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Pope Francis called on people around the world to fast and pray for peace in Syria, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas served at the heart of the pope’s prayer vigil at the Vatican.
Agustin Martinez, now in his second year of theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, entered a lottery at the college to serve for the pope on Sept. 7, and was grateful and thrilled to be among those chosen.
“I was even more excited to be praying alongside Pope Francis for the peace that the world is most in need of right now,” said Martinez.
His studies in Rome have already given him a front row seat to many historic moments this year.
He witnessed Pope Francis’ installation Mass, his first canonization Mass, many of the Holy Week services and a number of Sunday Angelus services.
But Sept. 7 brought an altogether different experience, one that — in the midst of global attention on the heightening crisis in Syria — carried a grave international tone.
Noting the scale and location of the vigil, the Vatican described the event as an unprecedented gesture for peace by a pope.
Approximately 100,000 people — of different faiths — gathered at the Vatican for hours to pray for peace, particularly focusing on Syria and the Middle East.
Looking out from the front of the vigil, Martinez was moved by how far back the crowd stretched.
“The vigil itself was incredible. During the times of silence [in] adoration, you could hear a pin drop,” he said. “The feeling that I sensed was a feeling of prayer and solidarity with our brothers and sisters throughout the world.”
The vigil occurred on the same day U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with European leaders as President Barack Obama considered a military strike as punishment for the use of chemical weapons in the civil war that has been raging in Syria.
The situation in Syria hit home especially for Martinez.
He spent a month of his summer working in Israel — Syria’s neighbor to the southwest — mainly leading tours of the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, the Old City of Jerusalem and other holy sites.
He was in Israel on Aug. 21 when an alleged chemical attack killed more than 1,400 people near the Syrian city of Damascus.
“The Wednesday that the chemical weapons attack occurred, I was actually as close as you can be to Damascus from Israel, in a region called [the] Golan Heights,” he said.
“I saw the U.N. camp and the huge land-mine fields that prevent the Syrians from crossing into Israel, so I was very familiar with the conflict even as it was developing.”
His brush with the political situation in Syria and the suffering of the people there heightened his desire to take part in the vigil — an event pervaded with a decidedly more somber tone than many of the pope’s other public appearances.
Pope Francis did not smile or wave when he came out of the basilica at 7 p.m.
In his brief homily during the four-hour vigil, he did not specifically refer to current events, but spoke of war in biblical terms.
“When man thinks only of himself, 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,” said Pope Francis. “Then the door opens to violence, indifference and conflict.”
Hope for peace
But he offered a hopeful conclusion, pointing to the cross.
“How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the cross, if only for a moment,” he said. “There, we can see God’s reply: Violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue and peace is spoken.”
Priests heard confessions before and during the vigil.
“The most touching moment for me particularly was when the pope in his speech talked about the damage of war and political agendas, the destruction of humanity by humanity itself, of the silencing of our consciences and the improvement of weapons [whose] only function is to bring death,” said Martinez. “He spoke about innocent children — ‘bambini’ — and women dying at the mercy of those in power through war and destruction.”
And Martinez’s thoughts — as the crowd prayed for peace in Syria, the Middle East and the entire world — also naturally traveled to his native Mexico and the violence it has seen at the hands of drug cartels.
Many innocent lives there have been lost, too, he said.
“The thing that the pope wanted to get across was very simple: Peace!” said Martinez. “Peace is something that we are all called to; it is imprinted in our human nature. We are social beings, we need each other, and only in peaceful societies can humanity really flourish. War and destruction are against humanity.”
This article also contains information from Catholic News Service.