“Will there ever be peace in society and in our world?” is the question the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the learned and those illiterate throughout the world keep asking today. Since the third millennium has opened, the uninterrupted scenes of terrorism and violence seem to show no sign of abating. Rather, increasing covert and overt armed conflicts continue against the background of the geographical and political tensions that exist in many regions of the world. These give the impression that not only cultural diversity but also religious differences are causes of instability or threats to the prospect of peace. We need to keep asking, “is it true that religions cannot become part of the solution? Should they always remain always part of the problem?” Our meetings, like this one in Munster and Osnabruck, are not only necessary but most urgent; I wish that such meetings keep multiplying throughout the world, mostly on grass root levels.
On the occasion of its XXth anniversary Pope Emeritus Benedict XVIth described the historical Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986 in the following words: “the initiative promoted by Pope John Paul II some (twenty) years ago assumes the characteristic of a prophesy. His invitation to the religious leaders of the world to witness to peace served to clarify, unequivocally, that religions cannot be but vehicles of peace”. We need to meditate upon these words because St John Paul II had said at the conclusion of the 1986 Assisi meeting that “Peace awaits its prophets…visions of peace release energies for a new language of peace, for new gestures of peace, gestures which will shatter the fatal chains of divisions inherited from history…” At the conclusion of the event in Assisi in 1986 St Pope John Paul II appealed to the leaders of different religious traditions: “Let us continue to live the spirit of Assisi” The Community of Sant’Egidio responded enthusiastically to this challenge and thus began these annual meetings, Peoples and Religions.
Believers of all religions and none, cannot remain passive before the world which manifests more and more signs of hatred and violence. It is quite evident that peace, wherever it still exists, is continuously threatened. Having diagnosed the sickness of the world, St John Paul II suggested an appropriate cure, namely, believers of all religions must keep on coming together in favour of peace, or else our lack of coming together can be instrumentalized by forces of evil intentions to foment hatred, violence and war. The paradox of our society is that, on the one hand, people seek peace while on the other hand all suffer from the dire consequences of war and terrorism. The Second Vatican Council had already declared: “We cannot truly pray to God the Father of all if we treat any people in other than brotherly fashion, for all men (and women) are created in God’s image” (Nostra Aetate, n. 5). The question of peace is related to the present and future of the entire world. The United Nations had already realized this, which is why it declared the International year of peace in 1986. On that occasion St Pope John Paul II, in his prophetic gesture, thought it necessary to convoke the representative religious leaders from all around the world for a Day of Prayer and Fast for world peace in Assisi. Personally I feel grateful to the Community of Sant’Egidio for promoting the ‘spirit of Assisi 1986’
Choosing Assisi as the place for the Day of Prayer for Peace, the city of the ‘little poverello’ Francis, for such a coming together of the whole world in miniature is also a prophetic gesture. The whole world considers this place a vivid symbol of peace. This place embraces peoples of the whole world. Francis of Assisi, by his silence, his words, his gestures, is a prophet of peace, that is, there is divine inspiration behind what he thinks, speaks and does. After all peace is God’s gift to us. St Pope John Paul II has explicitly acknowledged that the two saints of Assisi, Francis and Clare, inspired him to convoke the day of prayer for peace in Assisi.
We need to keep ideal of peace before us lest we become mediocre and indifferent in promoting peace. In other words, in order to will and to attain peace we need an ideal before us. Assisi symbolizes such an ideal for us to reach. Peace should not be our wishful imagination; peace cannot be simply a rearrangement of status quo; peace cannot be making a show of attractive items and hiding unpleasant and potentially conflict issues. Peace is intrinsically related to the total submission to God, an attitude of humility, a desire to renounce selfish and egoistic plans, an honest experience of total emptying of oneself. Francis of Assisi personifies this truth of peace. If I may add here, in India we have been blessed with a similar type of personality, Mahatma Gandhi, in the context of Hindu religious tradition.
At the centre of the prophetic gesture for the Day of Prayer for Peace in 1986 was the search for authentic peace; this could really take place in a place like Assisi, a place where one is inspired and one experiences prayerful atmosphere. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote after twenty years: “Among the features of the 1986 Meeting, it should be stressed that this value of prayer in building peace was testified to by the representatives of different religious traditions, and this did not happen at a distance but in the context of a meeting. Consequently, the people of diverse religions who were praying could show through the language of witness that prayer does not divide but unites and is a decisive element for an effective pedagogy of peace, hinged on friendship, reciprocal acceptance and dialogue between people of different cultures and religions”.
Because it has been a prophetic event, it has been always emphasized that the Day of Prayer for Peace in 1986 is an unrepeatable event. Only its ‘spirit’ must now continue. To continue to do this in our conflict-ridden and hateful society, in our war-torn world, is prophetic! People of all religions can and should contribute to peace. It is a part of almost all religions to teach respect for conscience, love of neighbor, justice, forgiveness, self-control, detachment from creatures, prayer and meditation. Sant’Egidio has been a catalyst in organizing these annual events, “Peoples and Religions” in various cities of the world. What is this ‘spirit of Assisi’? It is precisely to become a ‘world movement of prayer for peace’. Isn’t that at the central focus of our meeting these days as this ‘spirit’ continues over the years in different cities, mainly of Europe? Peace is the universal responsibility of everyone in society and all in the world. We are at a critical moment in world history and a new orientation has to be sought, a new beginning to be made, so that humanity may live in peace.
Our interreligious meetings, either big or small in number, formal or informal in nature should be on a regular basis and particularly on the grass-root levels. Leaders and people of different religions need to be seen coming together as united in purpose and meeting amicably since there is a lot of “bad news” being published by media about religions as the cause of many a problem. Peace becomes rooted and peace spreads when people of different religions commit themselves, on their own, and/or to working together, if possible, for the elderly, the emigrants, the poor, the homeless et al. These are prophetic gestures and favour genuine peace. In doing all this we do not need to seek religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions by striking the least common denominator; instead, being rooted in one’s own faith traditions and being open to others at the same times and enjoying mutual respect of one another is important for peace in the world. A healthy atmosphere of plurality will not harm fidelity to one’s own identity, and will not present any aspects of indifferentism to anyone. Let us not forget that fraternal charity, as well as awareness of diversity, have characterized the ‘spirit of Assisi 1986’. Let us become prophets of peace in ‘the spirit of Assisi’ in our respective places and communities. Thank you.