September 12 2011 09:00 | Residenz, Kaisersaal
The Spirit of Assisi: 25-years of History by Gijun Sugitani
Chairperson, leaders from religious organizations, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honor for me to have this opportunity to speak to you.
This is a commemorative year; the 25th year since world religious leaders gathered and prayed together for world peace in Assisi. I still remember vividly that the square in front of the St. Francisco Church located in the middle of the hill in Assisi, among the vast olive groves of northern Italy was surrounded by the tense yet quietly excited atmosphere on October 27, 1986. That day, the air was clear and it was cold like winter.
His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, who stood at the center of the stage for prayers, spoke about the spirit of Assisi in front of various religious leaders from all over the world. The following is a summary.
• If the world continues to exist and men and women continue to survive, it will be impossible without prayers.
• We cannot pray with a common method, but we can stand with the person while he/she is praying.
• It is vital to let the world know that there is another way to achieve peace beside the diplomatic and political compromises or economic deals. What is necessary is the sincere and humble prayer.
• We follow our own religious traditions completely and have gathered here with the understanding of the uniqueness of each faith, therefore we should not hide our differences. Rather it is important to rediscover how our own religion and other religions lead to the path of peace.
• Peace is the common duty for everyone. It is achieved by numerous small deeds in our daily lives. Therefore we’d like to entrust the peace movement to our youth. I hope that the young will free people from going astray down the wrong path and change the course of history.
• Peace is not only the task of individuals it is also in the hands of nations. Each nation must build the foundation to create peace. That’s why we will actively call upon leaders of nations and international organizations.
After the Pope’s address, a prayer from leaders of each world religious organization was offered on the stage in alphabetical order. At the time of prayer by Christian traditions, there were representatives of Protestant groups, Greek Orthodox, and the Church of England, but the Pope did not position himself in front of that group. The image of the Pope standing a half step behind those representatives praying quietly with them was especially impressive. It was as if he were expressing exactly the spirit of Assisi.
In answer to the Pope’s call, the spirit of Assisi has been passed down to the youth of the Community of Saint Egidio (Comunità di Sant’ Egidio). Starting from the following year in Rome, the community has hosted the Gathering for the Prayer for Peace in various European cities every year and has continued the activities for a quarter of a century without a break. I’d like to express my deepest respect to their passion toward peace.
On the other hand The Most Ven. Etai Yamada, the head priest of Tendai Buddhism at that time, was invited to the Gathering for the Prayer for Peace at Assisi, and he highly valued the meeting. In order to continue the spirit of Assisi, he issued a declaration to hold a gathering of prayer for peace at Mt. Hiei in Japan, inviting world religious leaders the following August. Mt. Hiei is a sacred mountain and is called the mother mountain of Japanese Buddhism. It was his suggestion that various Japanese religious organizations be the joint-hosts and to have a gathering there. This is how the spirit of Assisi has been carried out to the East.
Following is a quote by Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, who established Tendai at Mt. Hiei a little over 1200 years ago.
One cannot catch a bird with a single section of mesh of a net. One denomination of religion is not enough to capture everyone.
It means that as we can’t catch a bird with a single section of mesh of a mist net, we can’t save all people with a single religious denomination. Saicho recognized the existence of other religions; he founded Tendai Buddhism because he had realized many people were looking for his teachings. A great Buddhist master in China, Zhiyi , whom Saicho studied said, “A single section of mesh of a net cannot catch a bird, but to capture a bird, one needs only a mesh.” That is to say, if a mist net were made of only a single interlock unit, we won’t be able to catch a bird, but if you look at the captured bird, it was caught by only a single piece of mesh unit. Hence, Tendai Buddhism recognizes other religions and their values, but it is not syncretism. We believe that each religious organization should search for peace and liberates people with their own sublime and distinctive religious purposes. This is the equivalent way of thinking to the spirit of Assisi. Therefore, When the Most Ven. Yamada heard His Holiness’ speech, he was sympathized right away and moved to hold the gathering of prayers for peace at Mt. Hiei.
On August 4, 1987, in a different season from that in Assisi, representatives of various religions from around the world offered their prayers under the sun of the midsummer. His Holiness, John Paul II, dispatched Cardinal Arinze, President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue to the Vatican, to the gathering along with his message. In his message the Pope emphasized the importance of prayers for peace and concluded by saying “Each person should position his or her own faith and pray in search of the truth. Without the prayers, world peace cannot be achieved.” And he saw the great importance in continuing the spirit of Assisi. On that day, the message sent out from Mt. Hiei to the world was “May our example of coming together here to pray for peace be followed and multiplied elsewhere in the world, and may the great gift of peace, for which all humanity yearns, be granted in our time.” Since that time, the Gathering of Prayer for World Peace has been held at Mt. Hiei every year as it was hoped for in the message. The 25th gathering is scheduled next year.
As I’ve explained here, the spirit of Assisi has been passed down to the Community of Saint Egidio and to Japanese religious organizations; the prayers for peace have been offered in Europe and Asia. During this past 25 years, the world has changed significantly. The Berlin Wall was dismantled. The east-west cold war structure collapsed due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Because of this, people expected the swift arrival of world peace. However a range of issues which threatened world peace have surfaced; such as intensified ethnic conflicts, deepening of south-north conflicts and the advance of the global warming problems in various parts of the world. Especially among ethnic conflicts, pre-existing antagonism mixed with religious differences radicalize the conflicts even further.
As an example there was the outbreak of a civil war in the Bosnia-Herzegovina region in 1991. In this region, 43% of the people were Bosnian Muslims, 31% were Orthodox Christian Serbs, 17% were Catholic Croats and the remaining people were Jewish and others. Each ethnic group claimed their own privileges. The differences between their religions intensified the conflicts even more, and they escalated to the level of the ethnic cleansing. Religious leaders stood up under that situation. Muslim, Catholic Serbian Orthodox, and Jewish leaders gathered together and appeared publicly explaining the importance of respecting other religions and living together. Soon a council was established to promote a dialogue among these four religious groups; they provided a positive influence from their own perspectives to the end of the civil war. The exact spirit of Assisi was exhibited there. Children from Bosnia - Herzegovina region attended at the 20th gathering for Prayers for Peace at Mt. Hiei on August 2007. A girl among these children painted a picture with peace as the theme. It was a very impressive painting. A Christian church, an Islamic mosque and a Jewish synagogue were in the picture, and all entrances were connected by a bridge. It was a vivid example beyond logic by a child who did not wish religious conflict. The spirit of Assisi has begun to sprout among children all over the world.
As a clergy, it is impossible for me not to mention 9-11. On September 11, 2001, two passenger airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center in Manhattan, New York. The buildings collapsed and the casualties were close to 3000. Because the entire incident was broadcasted on TV to the world, many people were affected by it. Muslims were identified as those who hijacked the airplanes, and the anti-Muslim sentiment spread across the US and around the world. The Religions for Peace called out to various religious leaders in the world to gather in New York immediately and appealed to them not to hold discriminatory feelings against Muslims. Also Religions for Peace strongly appealed to the United Nations. Moreover, the representatives from religious groups offered prayers in their own traditional ways at a Catholic church near the World Trade Center and visited a mosque in the city to have a dialogue. There, the spirit of Assisi was fully present.
The Middle East is, however, still in crisis. There are still many places where peace is threatened, such as troubles in Libya and other Islamic nations and the situation in Afghanistan. Of course there is a possibility to achieve peace temporarily by the use of the military power. From the position of a clergy person who searches for everlasting peace, I believe we have a responsibility to spread the spirit of Assisi that transcends differences between the ethnicities and religions and unite us all with everyone’s dignity employing innovation.
Thank you very much for your attention.