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Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men

By Jennifer Gregory Miller ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 01, 2018 | In The Liturgical Year

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.

On the first Christmas night, the angels announced these glad tidings to the poor shepherds in the fields surrounding Bethlehem. Since then, Christmastime is cited as the time of peace. It is said because the Son of God came to earth, He shares His peace to all. But if Christ came to bring peace, why is it our world still not experiencing this promised universal peace?

I think the answer to this question can be found by reading this Scripture passage in context within its original translation (as above). Only men of good will can receive this gift of peace. Peace begins interiorly and can only be received by those who are receptive to it. And then that peace is spread.

Good will—what does this word mean? It’s spelled in different ways: goodwill, good-will, and good will, but whichever way it is spelled, the meaning stays the same. I hear and read that word so often, but rarely find it defined. I scoured various Catholic dictionaries, encyclopedias, and reference books and found no listing or explanation for this word. I did find multiple uses of this word in official Catholic context, but usually in greetings in papal documents and declarations, such as Pope St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae: “To The Bishops, Priests And Deacons, Men And Women, Religious, Lay Faithful and All People of Good Will.”

The dictionary defines good will as: “a kindly feeling of approval and support: benevolent interest or concern.” The synonyms listed include benevolence, compassion, goodness, kindness, consideration, charity, cooperation, friendliness, thoughtfulness, and decency.

But the word has never really struck home for me until recently. Our school’s staff is reading together Searching for and Maintaining Peace: A Small Treatise on Peace of Heart by Father Jacques Philippe. It was in that reading that I found the proper perspective and understanding of the balance on peace and good will.

One cannot enjoy a profound and durable peace if he is far from God, if his inmost will is not entirely oriented toward Him. “You made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (Saint Augustine).... The interior peace that we are considering cannot, of course, be shared by all persons independently of their attitude toward God.... A necessary condition for interior peace, then, is what we might call goodwill. We could also call it purity of heart. It is the stable and constant disposition of a person who is determined more than anything to love God, who desires sincerely to prefer in all circumstances the will of God to his own; who does not wish to consciously refuse anything to God....

Here, then, is what we mean by goodwill. It is not perfection, nor sainthood achieved, because it could well coexist with hesitations, imperfections and even faults. But it is the way, because it is just this habitual disposition of heart (whose foundation is found in the virtues of faith, hope and love), which permits the grace of God to carry us, little by little, toward perfection.

This goodwill, this habitual determination to always say “yes” to God, in the great things as in the small, is a sine qua non for interior peace. As long as we have not acquired this determination, a certain uneasiness and sadness will not cease to abide in us—the uneasiness of not loving God as much as He invites us to love Him, and the sadness of still not having given all things to God....

But..even still has lots of faults and failings, we can affirm that goodwill suffices to be able to maintain one’s peace of heart. As the Latin text of the Vulgate says, Pax hominibus bonae voluntatis (Peace on earth to men of goodwill) (Jacques Philippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, 2002, pp. 16-18).

Father Philippe points out that we cannot have peace without having prepared our hearts with interior good will. We have to cooperate and be receptive to receive his grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about grace, justification, cooperation and merit in Part One, Chapter Three, Article 2, #1987–2029.

I started to wonder why I never thought about this before, since the Gloria is sung almost every Sunday. But then I remembered that it was only in 2011 that the 3rd Roman Missal translation was issued. From 1970 the translation was “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” The correction of “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will” matches the Latin Missal and the Vulgate translation of the Bible.

This way of thinking that we must cooperate to receive the peace is very different from the Protestant thinking. In fact, the King James Version translation of this passage is “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men.” That translation turns man’s cooperation into complete receptivity. So many of our Christmas carols have the same translation, such as It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (“peace on the earth, goodwill to men”), I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (“Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”), Hark the Herald Angels Sing (“Peace on Earth, and Mercy mild”), and O Little Town of Bethlehem (“And peace to men on earth”). This view of simply receiving the peace is incomplete.

My thoughts are not original. I found an Address by Pope St. John XXIII from Christmas 1959 during which the Pope elaborated and explained how “True Peace” cannot come from God unless man makes the correct efforts and work to receive that peace.

He explains that true peace is threefold: peace of heart, social peace, and international peace. He explains good will a little more simply than Father Philippe:

Peace of heart: peace is before all else an interior thing, belonging to the spirit, and its fundamental condition is a loving and filial dependence on the will of God. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless till it rests in Thee“....

For its part, good will is simply the sincere determination to respect the eternal laws of God, to conform oneself to His commandments and to follow His paths—in a word, to abide in truth. This is the glory, which God expects to receive from man. “Peace among men of good will.

Peace begins interiorly, and then can build socially and internationally, but only, Pope John XXIII stresses, when man cooperates with God, and the bottom line is:

At all times, because true peace is indivisible in its various aspects, it will not succeed in establishing itself on the social and international planes unless it is also, and in the first place, an interior fact. This requires then before all else—it is necessary to repeat—“men of good will.” It is precisely to them that the angels of Bethlehem announced peace: “Peace among men of good will.” Indeed they alone can give reality to the conditions contained in the definition of peace given by St. Thomas—the orderly harmony of citizens—and therefore order and harmony.

This Christmas message emphasizes that there is work to be done by us:

At Bethlehem all men must find their place. In the first rank should be Catholics. Today especially the Church wishes to see them pledged to an effort to make His message of peace a part of themselves. And the message is an invitation to orient every act in accordance with the dictates of divine law, which demands the unflinching adherence of all, despite sacrifice. Along with such a deepened understanding, must go action. It is utterly intolerable for Catholics to restrict themselves to the position of mere observers. They should feel clothed, as it were, with a mandate from on high.

The effort, no doubt, is long and arduous. But the mystery of Christmas gives to all the certainty that nothing of men’s good will is lost, nothing, that is, of any act performed in good will (perhaps without being entirely aware of it) for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth and in order that the city of man may be modeled after the city of God. Ah, the city—the “city of God”—which St. Augustine hailed as resplendent with the truth that saves, with the charity that gives life and with the eternity that reassures!

This theme of cooperating and working with God to gain peace continues in Pope St. John XXIII’s other messages and encyclicals. But this message from 1959 clearly places the emphasis on the Christmas tidings of “peace to men of good will.

Silently and without notice Our Lord came to earth at Bethlehem. He came as the “Prince of Peace” but peace is not simply given. Changing the placement of “good will” in the angels’ message turns the passive and receptive message of peace into a proclamation of action and participation. Peace on earth is a gift from God, but it comes only with our cooperation and work, beginning with good will and interior peace.

On this last day of the Christmas Octave, I wish all of you great Christmas blessings. May you and your family work for this good will and peace in this New Year.

Jennifer Gregory Miller is a wife, mother, homemaker, CGS catechist, and Montessori teacher. Specializing in living the liturgical year, or liturgical living, she is the primary developer of’s liturgical year section. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: miked.doc6394 - Jan. 02, 2018 1:54 PM ET USA

    An excellent article. All of Fr. Philippe's books are amazing reads for any Catholic looking to understand Catholic spirituality better. "Searching for and Maintaining Peace" was the first book of his that I read. His point on the meaning of good will was a revelation to me. I have been teaching this truth ever since in my work as a Director of Catechesis. It's the reason the translation of the "Gloria" at Mass was updated. Thanks Jennifer for the great article!