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true faith The story of how Martin Sheen convinced the Pope to condemn Gulf War shows the power of faith

When John Paul II was Pope, Mother Teresa usually got what she wanted, as actor Martin Sheen found out


Brian D'Arcy

Brian D'Arcy

Brian D'Arcy

The great American actor Martin Sheen, who makes no secret of the impact religion has on the daily choices of life, has been writing about the extraordinary political influence Mother Teresa had in Rome; she had the ear of Pope John Paul II.

She could have had political pull across the world too, but was reluctant to get involved — except in Vatican politics.

When John Paul II was Pope, she usually got what she wanted, as Sheen found out.

Sheen admits: “I have been an activist for most of my adult life, having been blessedly influenced by my dear friend Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., whom I met while doing a film about Dan and his brother Philip, in 1981.

"This activism has led me to picket and pray and, on dozens of occasions, spend brief moments in jail for acts of (quite minor) civil disobedience.”

At the time of the Persian Gulf War the sheer ferocity of the violence compelled him to act yet again in the hope that the bloodletting would end.

It didn’t. For all their marching, debating and activism that the peace community could muster, the atrocities just grew and grew.

Something more radical was needed. His friend Joe Cosgrove inspired Sheen and friends to take that radical action.

“Not only is Joe Cosgrove a dedicated lawyer and committed peace activist himself… he was Dan Berrigan’s friend and lawyer and participated with me in my first civil disobedience arrest and has represented me ever since. ‘I have an idea,’ Joe said.


Pope John Paul II in Ireland in 1979

Pope John Paul II in Ireland in 1979

Pope John Paul II in Ireland in 1979

‘We can ask Pope John Paul II to bring the issue of the war to the World Court on behalf of the Vatican.’ What seemed to be a wacky idea got even wackier as it was explained to me,” Sheen recalls.

Cosgrove pointed out that the only “country” which had consistently objected to the build-up of the Gulf War was the Vatican. Pope John Paul II, in his prime, continually pleaded for the fighting to end.

“Joe had a simple plan: Since the only parties allowed to invoke the World Court’s jurisdiction are actual nations, and since the Vatican is a recognised diplomatic entity, it could bring an action to the court to challenge the war’s legitimacy under international law.

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The only problem was that neither of us was particularly close to the Pope. But Joe had thought of a solution to that as well.”

One of his contacts was quite close to Mother Teresa, who had also been outspoken about the war.

His friend put Joe in touch with Mother Teresa, who, conveniently was going to be in Rome a few days later.

When she heard of their proposal, she invited them to meet her in Rome and explain what she should do. Surprisingly, she agreed to share their plan with the Pope without any promise of success.

As they flew to Rome Sheen admits he got cold feet.

“How did I get myself into this foolish escapade?

"I was flying to Rome to deliver a message to Pope John Paul II through the intervention of Mother Teresa of Calcutta so that a suit could be brought in the World Court to stop a raging war in the Persian Gulf…

"How could this group of ours have the audacity to think we could accomplish anything, let alone something of this magnitude?”

Joe however, had no such doubts, telling Sheen: “We’re going there to tell the truth, and the rest is in God’s hands. Besides, how can we determine what’s in store for us before we even take the first step?”

They agreed to put their case for peace and leave it in God’s hands. They met Mother Teresa where she was staying with her sisters in Rome.


Divisive at times: Gay Byrne with Mother Teresa on ‘The Late Late Show’

Divisive at times: Gay Byrne with Mother Teresa on ‘The Late Late Show’

Divisive at times: Gay Byrne with Mother Teresa on ‘The Late Late Show’

“We arrived at the nondescript door of a structure that had once been a large chicken coop but which now housed the sisters and Mother Teresa when she was in town. This was a place of utter humility, service and prayer.

"As we were ushered into a room, we saw a small chapel stacked with clothes that were to be distributed to the poor. In a moment, a tiny figure in a white sari with blue stripes met us with a broad smile. It was the living saint of Calcutta,” Sheen remembers.

She welcomed them and wanted to know about their families.

She then confessed she had never heard of the World Court and asked just one question “So how do they make them obey?”

Joe told her he had written a brief for the Holy Father; that the war violated several principles of international law and that a ruling from the World Court would bring it to an end.

Mother Teresa didn’t seem terribly interested but said she would deliver it to the Pope next morning.

Joe and Martin walked back to their hotel and decided that all they could do now was pray.

“The next day, a few hours after Mother’s visit, Pope John Paul II held his weekly audience and issued one of his strongest rebukes of the war.”

Mother Teresa invited them to Mass with the community next morning at 5am.

“I met Joe in the hotel lobby around 4:30am. When we arrived at Mother’s chapel, the news was confirmed: The war was over! A liturgy of hope was now a liturgy of thanksgiving and remembrance.”

At the prayer of the faithful they thanked God for the success of their mission.

After a long silence, a small voice made a final request: Mother asked that we “pray for all those we promised we’d pray for.” For her that was the entire world.

“Did Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul or our prayers have anything to do with ending the war? Frankly, that is none of our business.

"As Father Dan Berrigan often told us, we are only required to tell the truth and say our prayers. The rest is in God's hands.”


Martin Sheen was joined by his The West Wing co-stars for a reunion special to drive up voter participation (Niall Carson/PA)

Martin Sheen was joined by his The West Wing co-stars for a reunion special to drive up voter participation (Niall Carson/PA)

Martin Sheen was joined by his The West Wing co-stars for a reunion special to drive up voter participation (Niall Carson/PA)

I think that’s a powerful, true story which gives us both hope and a plan to fight our war with coronavirus — tell the truth, pray and leave the rest in God’s hands.

(Martin Sheen was writing in the Jesuit magazine America, which can be accessed online.)

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