Philosophical plea for peace runs into cold, hard reality

March 20, 2003|By Michael Olesker

THE DRIVER reaching the bottom of the Jones Falls Expressway sees two reminders of our fragile time: to the left, outside historic St. Vincent de Paul Church, a message from Pope John Paul II that reads like a national admonition. And, to the right, the concrete barriers outside the front doors of the Baltimore City Police Department.

The words from the pope were hoisted Tuesday morning, just hours after President Bush delivered his wartime ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. "War is always a defeat for humanity," the sign says. The letters are white against a dark background, a stark message to the thousands who pass it each day, a rebuke to a nation now plunging into conflict in the Persian Gulf, and a philosophical bone of contention for parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul.

But, directly across President and Fayette streets, philosophy has no place. There, directly outside police headquarters, are the barricades erected within hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that evolved, during the past 18 months, into the new confrontation.

The barriers have not been removed since Sept. 11, 2001. They are there, we were told the day they went up, as a final defense for police. The explanation conjures an image of mad terrorists plunging down the Jones Falls Expressway, bent on barreling directly into the police station.

But, if the barriers symbolize America's siege mentality since Sept. 11, the banner outside St. Vincent de Paul captures some of our national ambivalence about entering the new war.

"We had considerable debate," the Rev. Richard Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul for the past three decades, said Tuesday afternoon. He sat in his dank, disheveled office in the church rectory with a telephone ringing every few moments, a gray, bearded, burly man in a flannel checked shirt.

As planes and tanks lurch into motion half a world away, Lawrence weathers his own conflicts surrounding the war. Last month, he OK'ed a banner reading "War is not the answer" that hung from the whitewashed wall of the 162-year-old building. The parish proudly bills itself as "the oldest Catholic parish church in America's oldest archdiocese."

That first sign prompted anger from some parishioners, at least one of whom announced he was leaving the parish in protest after 23 years. But the anger was mixed. Some didn't like the anti-war message. Others didn't like the lack of consultation before it went up.

Before this new banner was hoisted, says Father Lawrence, there were meetings by the church's peace and justice committee and the parish council and general "town meetings."

"The meetings," said Father Lawrence, "were animated. Not screaming, but a strong sense of ideas being exchanged. In this parish, there's considerable support for the pacifist position that war is always wrong. But there's also support for the notion of a `just war.' We would have felt much more `justified' with the United Nations on America's side."

A final parish vote, he said, gave 83 percent approval to erecting the pope's message. As it happens, the sign also went up with last week's Catholic Review offering a front-page headline reading "From Papal Envoy: War without U.N. Approval Would Be Immoral, Illegal and Unjust."

But Father Lawrence says, "Our decision to put up the sign had nothing to do with the political stance of the Vatican. This was the decision of this parish." Then, chuckling slightly, he adds, "Rome doesn't know I'm alive."

With American troops now in harm's way, this is not an easy time to talk peace. New polls show about 70 percent of the country supports the war. When Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said President Bush "failed so miserably at diplomacy," he was quickly blasted by Republican counterparts.

But, when presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer criticized Daschle, reporters repeatedly asked whether he was suggesting that criticism of Bush - or the war - was unpatriotic. The answer to that question is our national conundrum, reflected in the sign now erected at St. Vincent de Paul.

"When I heard the president's words," says Father Lawrence, "I thought, `I just hope too many people won't be killed.'" He sighed and led a visitor on a brief tour of the church. As he touched the pages of old sacred texts, he was asked what God might make of humanity waging yet another war.

"God," he replied, "must be extremely patient. The universe is millions and millions of years old. How many times have we given God cause to call the whole thing off?"

"Why doesn't God call off all war?" he was asked now.

He shook his head sadly. "Being God isn't what it's cracked up to be," he said.

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