Today marks the 60th anniversary from the publication of Pacem in Terris, an important encyclical written by Pope John XXIII in 1963 at a time when the world was undergoing significant changes and facing numerous challenges.

The cold war was at its peak and the world was divided into two ideological camps, with the threat of nuclear war constantly looming. At the same time, many countries struggled to overcome poverty, inequality and social injustice.

The pope felt it was urgent to address the pressing issues of his time and offer a vision for a more just and peaceful world. He saw the Church as having an important role to play in promoting human dignity, social justice and international cooperation. He believed that the Church had a responsibility to speak out on these issues and work towards the promotion of human rights and the strengthening of global governance.

The encyclical was also written at a time of great change within the Catholic Church itself. John XXIII had convened Vatican Council II, which aimed to reform and modernise the Church in response to the challenges of the modern world. Pacem in Terris was a fruit of this effort, as it reflected the council’s emphasis on social justice, human rights and interfaith dialogue.

Sixty years later, we are living in a very different world. However, there are also many similarities with the world that first received the prophetic words of John XXIII. The war in Ukraine is yet again bringing to the fore the tensions between the East and the West, compounded by the threat of nuclear annihilation. And the universal Church is also going through a period of renewal as, through the Synod on Synodality, it attempts to become a dynamic community of pilgrims.

One of Pacem in Terris’s main messages is its emphasis on the importance of respecting human rights and recognising the inherent worth and dignity of every person, regardless of their race, nationality or social status.

This message remains crucial today, as issues like racism, xenophobia and inequality still plague many parts of the world. Pacem in Terris serves as a reminder that every person deserves to be treated with respect and compassion, and that promoting human dignity is essential for achieving peace and justice.

Another important message is the need for international cooperation and solidarity. The encyclical recognises the interconnectedness of the global community and stresses the importance of working together to address common challenges. This message is particularly relevant today as the world faces issues, such as climate change and terrorism, which require a global response.

The celebration of this anniversary also comes at a time when Malta has a seat on the UN security council, which remains a critical forum for global diplomacy and conflict resolution.

The security council’s broad powers include the ability to authorise military intervention, impose economic sanctions and establish peacekeeping missions. It can also refer cases to the International Criminal Court for prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Its decisions, therefore, continue to have the potential to shape the course of international relations and global security.

Having a seat at this table brings with it the responsibility and the courage of taking the right decisions in the pursuit of just peace. This was highlighted in February when Malta was chairing the security council. It also raises the question of how Malta’s constitutional neutrality can serve the cause of peace. To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Pacem in Terris and delve deeper into this theme, the Justice and Peace Commission is organising a panel discussion featuring the professor of international relations, Anna Khakee, Fr Carlo Calleja, professor of public policy Edward Warrington, anthropologist Ranier Fsadni and Malta’s ambassador to the UN Vanessa Frazier.

Coming from different backgrounds, the panellists will contribute different perspectives to the debate about the meaning of neutrality in the face of unprovoked aggression and whether the 1987 neutrality clause needs to be reviewed and redefined within the framework of broader constitutional reform.

Sixty years ago, Pope John XXIII made it clear true peace is more than just the absence of war. Without the foundations of justice and full human development, peace is a short-lived illusion. In the absence of solidarity and a culture of dialogue, all hopes of peace risk being shattered. Six decades later, it is still not too late to learn the lessons of Pacem in Terris. 

The panel discussion will be held at the Archbishop’s Curia, Floriana on April 25 at 7pm. Members of the public are welcome to attend. Register by sending an email to: [email protected].

(This article first appeared in the Times of Malta -11/04/2023)