It is an honor to address this 30th anniversary of the international encounters on peace as the culture of dialogue and the care for creation organized by our beloved friends in the Community of Sant’ Egidio in collaboration with the Diocese of Assisi and the Franciscan Family. It is a special privilege to be in the presence of such distinguished religious and political leaders, who truly wish to make a difference in a world that “thirsts for peace.”
We recently witnessed this sincere desire to heal our community and our planet when the entire world mourned the loss of life and beauty with the earthquake that struck central Italy. Therefore we can appreciate that, as a gift and goal that “surpasses all understanding,” peace is something that we long for and yearn with much passion and with great pain. And it can only be achieved through unconditional dialogue and care for all of God’s creation. It is a culture that is both learned and acquired.
Culture and Faith in Dialogue
As a young boy, we recall seeing Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, an extraordinary leader of ecumenical sensitivity – a tall man, with piercing eyes and a very long beard. Patriarch Athenagoras was known to resolve conflict by inviting the embattled parties to meet together, inviting and telling them: “Come, let us look one another in the eyes, and let us then see what we have to say to one another.” He understood very well that peace is personal!
This notion of looking at each other honestly in order to understand and cooperate with one another is surely very crucial in any concept of cultural and religious dialogue for establishing tolerance and peace in our world. In recent years, we have all witnessed constructive and creative changes in contemporary society with regard to openness and inclusion of other faiths and minority communities. At the same time, we have experienced exclusive and destructive examples in the way the world has behaved toward migrant and refugee groups. If we truly thirst for peace, then we must surely work for peace. This is why the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church declared in its final Message: “Sober inter-religious dialogue helps significantly to promote mutual trust, peace and reconciliation.”
The underlying principle of openness and dialogue is that all human beings ultimately face the same challenges. Therefore, dialogue draws people of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds out of isolation, preparing them for an exchange of mutual respect and coexistence. Of course, some people have strong – we might say fundamentalist – convictions that they would rather sacrifice their lives than change their views. Others are unfortunately even willing to take the lives of innocent victims to defend these views. This is why we are obliged to listen more carefully, to “look at one another” with love and compassion more deeply “in the eyes.” For, in the final analysis, we are always much closer to one another than we are distant from or different to one another.
Of course, we would not be so naïve as to claim that dialogue comes without risk or cost. Approaching another person – whether another culture or another belief – always comes with uncertainty as to the final result. Nonetheless, when one surrenders to the possibility of dialogue, something sacred happens. In the willingness to embrace the other, beyond any fear or prejudice, the reality of something – or Someone – far greater than us takes over. Indeed, then, we recognize how the profit of dialogue far outweighs any peril.
Culture and Environment
We have frequently emphasized the notion of the world as our home (oikos) and about the related concepts of economy (oikonomia) and ecology (oikologia). “Ecology” is the care of our home, while “economy” is the management of our household. This is why the Ecumenical Patriarchate has focused its attention and ministry on preserving the natural environment. For, this planet is indeed our home; yet it is also the home of everyone, as it is the home of every animal creature, as well as of every form of life created by God. Moreover, it is the home of younger generations, including those who are yet to be born. Unfortunately, our global economy is outgrowing the capacity of our planet to support it.
At stake, therefore, is not just our ability to live in a sustainable way, but our very survival as well as the survival of our planet. This means that peace is not only personal, as we have already observed, but that it is also ecological; it reaches out and touches every aspect and every detail of our life and our world. We are powerfully reminded of this reality when we see the town of Amatrice in complete ruins today.
Orthodox theology takes this a further step and recognizes that every human action leaves a permanent imprint on the poor of the earth. Human attitudes toward creation directly impact human attitudes toward other people. This is why those who will be most affected by global warming will be those who can least afford it. Furthermore, the problem of pollution is directly connected to the problem of poverty. For, all ecological activity is ultimately measured and judged by its impact and effect upon the poor (as we read in Matthew, chapter 25). To quote from the Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council: “The approach to the ecological problem on the basis of the principles of the Christian tradition demands not only repentance for the sin of the exploitation of the natural resources of the planet, namely, a radical change in mentality and behavior, but also asceticism as an antidote to consumerism, the deification of needs and the acquisitive attitude.”
Culture and Peace
Centuries ago, a Christian mystic declared: “Acquire inward peace, and thousands around you will find their peace.” In some ways, then, the dialogue for peace begins within. This in turn embraces a religious dimension, which can never be separated from genuine peace, whether locally or globally. As faith communities and religious leaders, we are obliged constantly to remind people about the obligation and responsibility to choose peace through dialogue.
The pursuit, however, of dialogue and peace calls for a radical reversal of what has become the normative way of the world. It demands a transformation of values that are deeply seeded in our heart and society. Transformation in the spiritual sense is our only hope of breaking the cycle of violence and injustice. For, war and peace are ultimately and fundamentally human choices.
This means that making peace is a matter of individual and institutional choice, as well as of individual and institutional change. It begins within and spreads outside to the local and in turn to the global. In this way, peace requires a sense of inner conversion (metanoia) – a change in policies and practices. Peacemaking requires commitment, courage and sacrifice. It demands a willingness to become people of dialogue and a culture of transformation.
This is why it is so critical for communities of love and solidarity such as here at Sant’ Egidio to assemble religious and political leaders, as well as social and civil representatives, to contemplate and cooperate together in order to find ways of responding to a world that “thirsts for peace.” What could be appropriate than for the three major Christian Churches (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism), just as for the three Abrahamic faith communities (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), to walk together and work together with a single purpose: namely, to heal the suffering of all people and to pursue the dialogue for peace.
Dear friends, we have endeavored to outline for you the profound and essential dimensions of peace as personal, as ecological, and as cultural. This means that our acceptance to be communities or cultures of religious dialogue, ecological awareness and peaceful coexistence is always a choice about how we want to relate to others, to the environment, and to the world.
Moreover, we have sought to underline that peace is a social event, a collective enterprise. It must be an ecumenical response to an ecumenical responsibility. We can only preserve peace and sustain our planet through a culture of dialogue.
The only question that we are called to answer is: “Do we want to be whole?” (John 5.6) If we do not, then we will remain paralyzed and incapable of responding to the crippling suffering around us. But if we do, we have been assured that the smallest seed of peace can have the largest impact on the world. For, such is the kingdom of heaven! (Matthew 13.31-32)
May God bless you all.