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NEW YORK – Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe says he vividly remembers a somber day on a 2017 trip to Japan where he heard the story of school children rushing to their classroom windows on an August day in 1945, attracted by the bright light of an atomic bomb detonating.

“One could only imagine their fate,” Wester said.

This story and others like it, along with the presence of two weapons laboratories and the nation’s largest nuclear weapons depository in New Mexico, prompted him to take a lead in calling for nuclear disarmament around the world.

On Jan. 11 Wester published a pastoral letter, Living in the Light of Christ’s Peace: A Conversation Toward Nuclear Disarmament. At a news conference ahead of the letter’s release, he called the nuclear arms race a “vicious spiral that prompts progressively destabilizing actions and reactions by all parties including our own country.”

“We can no longer deny or ignore the extremely dangerous predicament of our human family and that we are in a new nuclear arms race far more dangerous than the first,” Wester said. “We need nuclear arms control, not an escalating nuclear arms race.”

The pastoral letter comes a few weeks after the tenth review conference of the 1970 Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was delayed for the third time since April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A new date hasn’t been set, but the expectation is it will be sometime between August and September. In his pastoral letter, Wester highlights the significance of that treaty, though he laments that none of the nations with nuclear weapons have “honored that solemn commitment” to pursue cessation of the nuclear arms race, and instead modernized their nuclear weapons programs.

Wester was, however, “encouraged” by a joint statement published Jan. 3 by leaders of the five nuclear-weapon states – the United States, China, France, Russia and United Kingdom – on preventing nuclear war and avoiding an arms race.

“That’s what we precisely need for leaders to be talking about this very thing,” Wester said, responding to a question from Crux. “That’s so critical and so important at that level and I think we need to add our voices in support of that.”

The joint statement was also supported by Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, chair of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference Committee on International Justice and Peace, who called it an “important acclamation of the need to prevent nuclear war and avoid arms races.”

Wester hopes his pastoral letter will help the church’s efforts to work for disarmament by invoking a lasting conversation on concrete steps towards abolishing nuclear weapons and thus the nuclear threat.

“I know it’s challenging … and that we have a long way to go,” Wester said. “I also know that all women and men of goodwill want peace and the coming together to talk, to converse, to discuss, is the only way we’re going to rid our world of the colossal threat that nuclear weapons are to our security, to life, and to the common good.”

He said his home archdiocese has a special role in advocating for nuclear disarmament with the presence of the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, where nuclear weapons are produced, and the U.S. government’s repository of nuclear weapons at the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory was also the birthplace of nuclear weapons, including the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Wester cites in his pastoral letter that according to federal budget documents $6 billion of the $8 billion dollars Department of Energy facilities in New Mexico are slated to receive in the Fiscal Year 2022 budget is for nuclear weapons research and production programs.

Wester said he also understands there will be push back about the prospect of job loss if the laboratories are shut down, but he argues there’s a way to replace those jobs into more peaceful alternatives.

“My sense is that [the workers] will be really important participants in the conversation because they’re close to it, and they can help us with coming up with other suggestions on how these laboratories can transform these jobs into more peaceful jobs,” the archbishop said.

He also wants to remind people what’s at stake if these nuclear weapons are used.

“God has given us such a beautiful creation, and such wonderful brains and the ability to do so much, but we’re not God,” Wester said. “And sadly, we’ve created a situation where we could destroy God’s creation and that’s, in my mind, blasphemous and that requires us to really face this challenge.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg