Pacem in Terris

ImageToday is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, Peace on Earth. When it was issued in 1963 my cousin Fr. Abraham, was working in a poor area of northwest India attempting to build, almost literally by hand, a school that would provide “the best education we can give to the poorest students we can find.” As a Jesuit, he was under a vow to support the pope, so he read every encyclical very carefully in order to be familiar with the mind and thought of the pope. He was so moved by Pacem in Terris that he immediately composed a poem in response to it. The poem was initially published in The Sacred Heart Messenger, a Canadian Jesuit magazine, in December, 1963 and was reprinted in the Toronto Globe and Mail on their op ed page on Christmas Day of that same year. Fr. Abraham died last August after having spend over 60 years working and living with the poor in India. In his honor, and in honor of the 50th anniversary of the encyclical, I am reprinting his poem here. I ask you all to please read it, pray about it, and look around to see the poor in your midst and ask what you can do to ensure that they are treated as truly human.

Pacem in Terris

J. Murray Abraham, S.J.

(originally published Sacred Heart Messenger, December, 1963)

I hear a gentle Pope’s

gentle words of truth:

                        I see the harsh reality

                              in a harsh, hard world.

“Every human being has

the right to life.”

                        I see twins born in Singeli,

                              tiny brown, Nepali twins,

                              cradled in the coarse, cracked, grimy hands

                                    of a coolie woman.

                              laid on a blanket crawling with filth,

                              laid on a mud floor, clammy and cold,

                              doomed to death they lie there

                                    panting their first, precious breath.

“Every human being has

the right to physical integrity.”     

                        I see beggars swarming around me like flies

                              in station after station across sweating India,

                              clutching at my arm, groveling before me

                              twisted limbs, sightless eyes, rotting bodies,

                                    stinking sores.

                              My heart aches; my stomach is sick!

“Every human being has

the right to the means

necessary and sufficient

for a decent existence.”

                        I see streets in Manila, Madras, Chittagong, Alexandria,

                              littered with human garbage, male and female,

                              the about-to-die and the just-now-born,

                              the homeless, the foodless, clotheless, healthless, hopeless,

                              listlessly lying down to live or die

                              with sacred cows and flea-infested curs.

“Every human being has

the right to clothing.”

                        I see a greyhaired blind man

                              feeling his way up a mountain path towards me,

                              his bamboo sticks clicking against the stones,

                              bare, calloused feet moving carefully, cautiously.

                              He stands before me

                              clothed in nothing but reeking rags.

                              My mind groans with shame:

                              “Not even a pig in all its muck and misery

                              is clothed as one of these.”

“Every human being has

the right to shelter.”

                        I see Sahila’s shack,

                              tin-mud prison cell,

                              fifteen feet by eight of dark, damp, deafening squalor,

                              the squalling, the bickering, the haunting laughter

                              of six children under eight.

“Every human being has

the right to rest.”

                        I see filling half that shack and more

                              their common bed of planks, rice sacks, two blankets

                              bed of rest for puzzled father, pregnant mother,

                              puny children.

“Every human being has

the right to medical care.”

                        I see Tibetan refugees exhausted by the roadside,

                              men gaunt with walking, with dysentery, with despair,

                              babies swollen with worms, with malnutrition

                              children scabby with sores from exposure, hunger, dirt.

“Every human being has

the right to social services.”

                        I see the vast, foul, fetid sea of suffering, Calcutta,

                              slum-dwellers in the millions,

                              social-workers, a handful trying to empty

                              that stinking ocean of misery with leaking thimbles.

“Consequently every

human being has the

right to security in


                        I see Maleenie, desperate mother, desperate wife,

                              frantically pleading, pleading frantically.

                              “He has been sick, he could not work.”

                              (Nothing to eat in the house.)

                              “He has been sick, he could not work,

                              He could not work, he has been sick.” 

                              (Nothing to eat in the house.)

“Every human being has

the right to security

in old age.”

                        I see Kaloo-ka-baboo, squatting on the rock pile

                              faint with fever, sunken-cheeked

                              like a corpse grotesquely, indecently moving.

                              Seventy is he? eighty?

                              Old age is a crime. Old age is a time of fear.

                              What happens when the gnarled fingers are too feeble

                                    to hold the chisel and chip the stones?

                              Young and strong,

                                    you live on the edge of the hell of hunger

                              But where to do you live, where do you live

                                    when you are weak and old?

“Every human being has

the right to security

in widowhood.”

                        I see a widow, young and fair and frail,

                              a child clinging to her,


                              she owns nothing

                              her only security the strength of her back

                                                             the strength of her love

                              to carry and to care for

                                    her helpless, heavy, sweet burden.

“Every human being has

the right to security

in unemployment.”

                        I see the crowd at our building site

                              men, women, boys, girls,

                              pleading for life

                              begging, beseeching, crying for work,

                              just that—work,  any work,

                              work at twenty cents a back-breaking, hand-blistering day,

                              but work! rare privilege, work!

“Every human being has

the right to security

whenever he is deprived

of the means of subsistence

as a result of circumstances

beyond his control.”

                        I see a crowd of coolies, standing in the cement shed,

                              watching the monsoon rain with blank, bitter eyes,

                              rain—hour after hour after hour,

                              every hour of rain, an hour less pay, an hour more hunger.

                              It is raining pain.

“Every human being has

the right…”

                        I see—but I do not see!

                              Show me, gentle shepherd John, (now that you know),

                              show me how it can be.

                              Are these not human, then?

                              these multitudes in Algeria, India, China, Indonesia, Cuba, Argentina?

                              Are they some strange animals then?

                              these things with arms and legs and eyes and hearts like mine?

                              But not human; for see—no human rights!

                              They laugh as I laugh, they cry as I cry, they love as I love.

                              But they live—not as I live.

                              Eye has not seen, ear has not heard in the Western World

                              the sights I have seen, the sounds I have heard in the East.

                              O God! the sights I have seen! the sounds I have heard!

                              And in the West

                              the sights I have seen? the sounds I have heard?

Merry Christmas!

                        I see stores gaudy with gifts, crammed with crowds

                              packed with the nerve-racking noise, the clatter, the chatter,

                              the clang of cash-registers, the clickety-clack of toys

                              and underneath and above and in and through and around it all

                              a song: beautiful and blasphemous

                              “Silent Night, Holy Night; All is calm, all is bright.”

Merry Christmas!

                        I see windshield wipers swishing away heavy snow-flakes.

                              My Volks crawls carefully, warily down slippery streets,

                              until traffic is hopelessly snarled, cars jammed everywhere.

                              I am caught near the place of Christmas pilgrimage:

                                    a liquor store.

Merry Christmas!

                        I see children tearing paper off toys—

                              one and two and three and four.

                              They stop and whine: “Aren’t there any more?”

                              Oh yes, five and six—and up to ten.

                              And when you’ve finished start over again!

Merry Christmas!

                        I see the words of Time (or is it Eternity?)

                                                    of Life (or is it Death?)

                              “Four billion dollars spent…”

                              Four billion dollars!

                              for two hundred million overfed Americans.

                              more than all the help given over ten years

                              for four hundred million underfed Indians.

                                                O God! O God!

Gentle John,

Shepherd John,

                        Call us with your shepherd’s voice.

                        Lead us out of mockery,

                              out of mean, meaningless mockery.

                        Lead us away from the Christmas tree.

                        Lead us back to the Christmas cave.

                        Christmas is God born poor,




                        If we have gifts to give,

                        teach us to give to the poor,

                                                      the homeless,

                                                      the cold,

                                                      the rejected.

                        Christ is the starving beggar on the streets of Calcutta.

                        Christ is the weeping widow in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

                        Christ is the crying child in the hovels of Cairo.

                        Lead us back to Christ, gentle shepherd John.

                              Christ needs us.

                              He brought peace to us.

                                    let us now bring peace to Him.

                                    “Pacem in Terris.” Amen. Amen.


3 thoughts on “Pacem in Terris

  1. Kathy.

    Thanks for sharing — for reminding us so poignantly of P. In T. and for the profound reflection of Fr. Abraham. You have always spoken of him with such warmth in your eyes. I can see why. Hope all is well for you as you remember. Beth

  2. Thanks Kathy. That was beautiful and very meditative and makes mone think closely about life and the world. God Bless, Beth

  3. Thank you for sharing Fr. Abraham’s haunting words. Perhaps the election of Pope Francis will make a difference of the kind that is needed. Any difference, even the slightest, is better than none, as well you know. My God–I think of my refilling the community Easter baskets yesterday with what cost more than I can bear to tell you. What you have sent me is more than sobering. Nathaniel

    Date: Thu, 11 Apr 2013 17:46:50 +0000 To:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s