Bob McKeon

April 22, 2013

Pope John XXIII started writing Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth)around the time he received the diagnosis of cancer from his doctors. This landmark encyclical can be called his last will and testament.

This happened during the opening months of the Second Vatican Council in late 1962. The bishops started the council deliberations by addressing internal Church issues such as the liturgy.

However, within weeks of the council's opening, the bishops and people around the world found themselves in the drama of the nuclear confrontation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It became immediately clear to the bishops that their council discussions would have to be in dialogue with what was happening in the world outside of Church walls.

Pope John took seriously what was happening during this global nuclear confrontation. Historians tell of his personal role in diplomatic communications that helped to lead to the peaceful resolution of this crisis.

In the midst of heated Cold War rhetoric, Pope John in Pacem in Terris shows a major shift in traditional Catholic thinking about war and peace: "It is hardly possible to imagine that in the atomic era war could be used as an instrument of justice" (n. 127).

He put forward a dynamic appeal to work for a peace that is grounded in a national and international political order that fosters and supports a comprehensive framework of wide-ranging human rights. To work for peace is to work for justice.

Pope John realized that to achieve such an ambitious goal, he had to engage not only Catholics, but also the wider population. Significantly, Pope John is the first to address a papal encyclical to "all men (and women) of good will."

Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII

This challenging and hope-filled message caught the interest and imagination of people around the world. It was published verbatim in The New York Times and excerpts and positive commentary appeared in the Russian Communist controlled media. Much of the spirit and message of Pacem in Terris can be seen in the text of the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes, promulgated a couple of years later.


The underlying theology of Pacem in Terris is one of critical and respectful dialogue and engagement with the world. This theology contains a robust theology of the Spirit, where the Spirit is a transforming presence at work within creation and within human history.

This can be seen in Pope John's phrase "the signs of the times," which involves an ongoing discernment of authentic signs of God's presence and purpose in what is happening in peoples' lives in the world. This phrase is repeated later in Gaudium et Spes, and in statements from bishops around the world.

Pope John in Pacem in Terris identifies specific signs of the times, including the empowerment of the working classes in economic and political life, women taking a greater role in public life, the self-determination of colonized peoples and widespread recognition of the futility of settling international disputes by force of arms. This list still looks quite relevant today, 50 years later.


The task of discerning the "signs of the times" is a continuing responsibility for every generation. Also, it is a task not only for Church hierarchy, but also for the entire People of God along with others of our time.

One way for us to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris is to follow Pope John's example by discerning the "signs of the times" in today's world. I would suggest that such a list today would include the ongoing efforts by Catholic and other faith leaders, together with people of good will around the world to articulate an environmental ethic that truly embodies justice for the poor and oppressed today, solidarity with future generations and right relationship with all creation.

The early talks of Pope Francis and the newly released Canadian bishops' statement on Building a New Culture: Central Themes in Recent Church Teaching on the Environment certainly point in this direction.

Pope John's concluding appeal to believers of his time in Pacem in Terris still rings true today: "Every believer in this world of ours must be a spark of light, a centre of love, a vivifying leaven amidst his fellow men (and women)" (164).

(Bob McKeon: