30 March 2023, The Tablet

'The Future belongs to Peace' say young people

Being a judge in the Columban Missionaries' schools competition has been life-affirming.

'The Future belongs to Peace' say young people

Jenessa Thomas' image, which won second prize.

“If we strive for a world we know can be peaceful, every little thing we do is going to build the foundations for what we need to achieve it. I stand amongst the beginnings of the future, and that future belongs to peace.” 

Beautiful words from Thea Smith, of Loreto School in Altrincham, in a winning article from the 2023 Columban Schools Competition “Building Peaceful Futures”.

Through 47 articles and 82 image entries British teenagers showed they are fed up of living in fear about war – heightened by the invasion of Ukraine – and have a vision of a more peaceful world, alongside practical actions to achieve it.

“Without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18). Well, entrants demonstrated that they are daring to dream and highlighted people they find inspirational. Ezekiel M'Imea of St Mary's in Bishop's Stortford, for example, spotlighted the ecological conservation work of Kenyan Wangari Maathai, who founded the Green Belt Movement to empower women through the planting of trees.

The winning article, “Let’s demolish the wall” by Oaratwa Tebelelo of All Saints in Sheffield, examined the barriers she had put up to defend herself from horrific stories in the media about conflict. Yet they are in vain, because the realities cannot and should not be avoided.

She looked at the Little Way of St Thérèse of Lisieux and a project in Sheffield to tackle knife crime to demonstrate that anybody can make a contribution towards peace. She felt that her school provides role models of people who do this and that the school motto Fortis in Fide or “From Faith comes Strength”, which she wears on a badge every day, inspires her to be a peacemaker.

Of the ten shortlisted articles, one highlighted the need to speak out against nuclear weapons and urged young people to support peace organisations such as CND and Greenpeace.

Another talked about giving voice to victims of climate injustice through supporting CAFOD’s climate campaign, for “as food and water shortages and global poverty increase we can see conflict developing between countries for resources”.

One suggested that bees give humanity an insight into how to build peaceful futures: “With so much war and violence on our Earth it can be hard to see how we as a people can achieve peace and work together; and this is where we look towards bees who show us how to collaborate.”

Many addressed the role of faith, perhaps summed up by these words: “many faiths – whether Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam – oppose violence, and would never want nuclear weapons to even exist”.

A winning image by 15-year-old Jenessa Thomas of Altrincham’s Loreto School was a poster depicting a dove, “which is a frequent symbol of peace and hope in Christianity”. She explained that the rays of light around the dove “contain paintings of actions and words of peace which can be seen continuously in the Bible and through Jesus' actions”.

An image of people from various cultures holding up banners reading: “Real equality matters – We want peace”, “Refugees Welcome” and “Water for People, Not for Profit” won first prize in the image competition for Cara Mashumba of St Mary's Catholic School in Bishop's Stortford. She said: “It is everyone's individual responsibility to maintain these values to decrease the amount of violence and chaos.”

The conflict in Ukraine clearly worried many. A winning drawing by 16-year-old Julia Szewczyk of St Augustine's in West London, called “Spread love not war”, showed a young Ukrainian girl standing amidst the ruins of her city, holding the country’s flag and wearing Ukrainian national dress.

Next to the girl is a sunflower, the national flower of Ukraine and a symbol of peace.

“In the background the city is in black and white to portray the bleak and lifeless city that has been destroyed by war, but the girl is in colour to represent hope for a brighter future,” said Julia.

In the foreground there is a protest which represents the people around the world standing together to push for peace. Julia continues: “I included the quote, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ from Matthew's gospel to link the peacemaking of people around the world to Gospel teachings to spread love and not war.”

The peace initiatives of Pope Francis were applauded. “For World Day of Peace 2023, Pope Francis returns to a common theme of interconnectedness; to combat conflict, we must be united by an even greater desire for peace,” said one entrant; “and this includes keeping our eyes and ears open for the cries of the Earth.”

It was noted that religious concepts of redemption and reconciliation contribute to post-war countries’ peace efforts. There was evidence of awareness of Catholic Social Teaching, and specifically of the 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’.

Faith was judged to provide a moral framework for behaviour. “Many religious traditions include teachings about love, compassion, and forgiveness, which can help individuals and communities to act in a peaceful and nonviolent manner,” said one contribution.

Another felt that faith “can play a vital role in promoting peace and resolving conflicts, whether through promoting empathy and understanding, providing a moral framework for behaviour, offering comfort and support, or providing a platform for community organising”.

Yet a significant number of entrants felt that war is inevitable. Many young people reported being “bombarded” with violence in news coverage and in the media generally – from action films to violent video games.

Peer group pressure can push them into engaging with it more than they might wish and desensitise them to the realities endured by victims.

In fact, the young people who entered the competition were dismayed by “the pervasive nature of conflict”. One said that “much of the news and media we are presented with consists of wide-scale violence, for instance the ever-present war in Ukraine, or conflicts of a more ecological nature, with the environmental protesters in Latin America facing resistance from both governmental authorities and the police”. 

Nevertheless, being a judge in the competition has been life-affirming.

This week alone we see Pax Christi International’s support of the “Stop Killer Robots” campaign which tackles autonomous weapons and Christian CND’s campaign to prevent US nuclear weapons returning to British soil again. The scale of the challenges facing young people to promote peace in today’s world is daunting.

However, they are pointing out themselves that they will seek out others to work with and find support from older generations – including some with first-hand experience of war.

Young refugees seeking asylum in Britain after fleeing war in their own countries are present in many schools. Nearly 400 primary and secondary schools, nurseries and sixth forms are now Schools of Sanctuary, committed to creating a culture of welcome and inclusion for refugees and people seeking asylum. And young people are now more aware of Catholic peace groups, such as Pax Christi, and international bodies such as the United Nations.

UN Secretary General António Guterres, a Catholic, called this week “for all of us to be guided by the values of peace, dialogue and solidarity – and to reconnect with nature”.

The Columban missionaries thank all the judges, entrants and their teachers in more than 30 schools. Two judges are Columban priests based in Myanmar and South Korea with first-hand experience of conflict and preparations for war, and they warmly welcomed the attention of young people in Britain and Ireland to “Building Peaceful Futures”.

And, as one judge said: “The competition theme reminds us the task of ‘building peaceful futures’ is constant and challenging, and it is heartening to see the students who entered the competition capture that vision in their thoughtful and imaginative articles and images.”

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