In the era of piecemeal third world war, when war is “everywhere” and terrorism has overwhelmed daily lives, dialogue among religions, among believers and non-believers is crucial, to thwart the plans of those who want to cause divisions using the name of God. The Spirit of Assisi continues to blow with the same force; an intuition that became a prophecy. Thirty years have passed since that historical day – October 27 1986 – when John Paul II brought together world religious leaders in a joint prayer for peace. Times have changed and the world has experienced a widespread spiral of violence that swept through the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. A long trail of blood touched Paris, Brussels, Nice, until it struck against a small parish church in Rouen, France.
The world has thirst for peace and it asks: how many more will die? How many more innocent victims, and where?
Over 500 leaders of world religions accepted the invitation of the Community of Sant’Egidio, of the diocese of Assisi and of the Franciscan Families in Assisi to jointly invoke the gift of peace. Along the streets of the Poor Man, rabbis, imams, patriarchs, bishops and evangelical pastors from world countries walk side by side, hand in hand. Among them figure the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Pope Francis will join them next Tuesday.
“Now, more than ever, we need peace in this war that’s everywhere in the world. Let us pray for Peace!”
The Pope told the faithful in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, after the Angelus Prayer. He added: ““Following the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, a man of brotherhood and meekness, we are all called to offer a strong testimony to the world of our common commitment towards peace and reconciliation between peoples. May everyone join in prayer on Tuesday: may each of us take some time to pray for peace. The whole world united”.
The President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella joined participants attending the opening assembly at the Lyric Theatre of Assisi with a smile. He personally greeted each one of the religious leaders present, took a seat in the first row, listening attentively, without missing a word. At the end of the meeting he spoke consequential words:
“Dialogue between religions, between believers and non-believers, cultural dialogue, can attain a lot, much more than we can imagine. The fight against extreme violence is also a cultural struggle. And culture has the power to prevail over obscurantism.”
Andrea Riccardi retraced the long story of the past 30 years during which the Community of Sant’Egidio was in the forefront to bring the spirit of Assisi throughout the world, notably in war and poverty-stricken areas. “Often, facing terrorist acts, or conflicts, we are asked: what use is your dialogue? What use is prayer? How empty the world would be without dialogue and prayer! Prayer secretly illuminates the world, while dialogue holds reality together, subject as it is to the risk of fragmenting because of hatred and misunderstanding.
Here in Assisi there are no plans or strategies aimed at bringing about a radical change to the course of time. These men and women of faith, wearing their traditional attire, featuring the colours of world countries, are fully aware that religion is a weak force, “alien to weapons, money, political power.” “Thirty years ago, with the Spirit of Assisi, Saint John Paul II had the intuition that in order to build peace it is necessary to use the force of the prayer,” recalled the bishop of Assisi Domenico Sorrentino
Patriarch Bartholomew justly said:
“even the smallest seed of peace can have a huge impact on the world”
He added: “the only question we are called to answer today is: “Do we want to be healed?’ If we do not, then we will remain paralyzed and incapable of responding to the crippling suffering around us.”
Personal stories of those who experienced the suffering of death and the difficult path of rebirth were shared with participants gathered in the Assembly Hall of the Lyric Theatre. With a broken voice, overcome with emotion, the archbishop of Rouen Dominque Lebrun spoke of the shock caused by the death of Father Jacques Hamel and called for the grace of “forgiveness”, not only for the two murderers but also for their “instigators”, to all those silently listening to his words. Monsignor Domenico Pompili from Rieti described the “devastation” caused by the earthquake on the tragic night of August 24, at 3:36 a.m., along with the deep thirst for rebirth cherished in the hearts of the local population. The President of the Central African Republic Faustin-Archange Touadéra recalled that his Country is slowly recovering from a years-long political and military crisis. Stories of rebirth and recovery, despite the suffering, signalling that the world is still able to build paths of peace.