Towards a new encounter between religions in Assisi
A meeting with surprises of the Spirit
I would especially like to express my and our joy and gratitude to Pope Benedict XVI for having convoked this great meeting in the town of St Francis. It is a joy that is kindled by this inspiration that will certainly bring new acceleration and depth to living out one’s religious convictions in the service of peace. Today there is an urgent need for this when, ironically, fear of religion — by its very nature is a source of peace — is spreading but is rather blamed as the root cause of many conflicts, tensions, phobias, intolerance and religious persecutions that abound in the world.
Undoubtedly, in this time of great upheaval, “the walls within which the various civilizations and their cultures live, are crumbling”, observed philosopher Giuseppe Zanghì. But at the same time a “world-city” without walls is looming on the horizon, charged with hope”.
This is the vision proposed by Chiara Lubich in London in 2004, in front of a large audience which included representatives from many world religions. In answer to the question of what future awaited the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society of our time, threatening to be a clash of civilizations, she recalled the vision of St Augustine at the Fall of the Roman Empire under the pressure of migration. It was not the end of a civilization, but the birth of a new world.
A new world in painful development. Already in the early 1970s, Chiara perceived the “painful sense of uncertainty, a suffering which humankind more or less feels or will feel when different areas of the world” are “shaken by this encounter with peoples who were previously unknown”. Speaking to youths at an international congress, she asked them “not to turn a blind eye to the suffering of this humanity, but consciously enter into the gestation of the new world”. Then she added: “You are here to be formed in a new ‘world mentality’, to be a ‘new man’”.
For a moment 25 years ago the vision of this new world became a reality, at that first historic meeting of world’s religious leaders in Assisi. John Paul II referred to it a few months later in December 1986, in a significant address which he gave to his close collaborators from the Roman Curia: “There seemed for a moment to be a visible expression of the hidden but radical unity which the Divine Word, ‘in whom everything was created, and in whom everything exists’, has established among the men and women of this world”. It is a vision that embraces the present, “those who now share together the anxieties and the joys of this portion of the 20th century”. But also the past and the future: “Also those who have gone before us in history, and also those who will take up our places ‘until the Lord comes’”.
It is a wide vision of God’s plan for the human race, illustrated by the Second Vatican Council, designed by the first lines of Nostra Aetate: “different peoples”, but “one single community” spread over the face of the earth, which in Assisi was made visible. Blessed John Paul II deeply examined this throughout his meaningful address. It is a “radical unity”, he affirmed “which belongs to the very identity of the human being, [and] is based on the mystery of the divine creation”. Citing Council documents he continues: “All persons, accordingly, are called to this catholic unity of the people of God, which prefigures and promotes universal peace”.
This perspective sheds new light on the mission of the Church which was outlined by the Council: “to foster unity and charity among individuals” and therefore called to reject “nothing of what is true and holy” in different religions; rather, to “acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths” found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture; to gather from them “a ray of truth which enlightens all men”.
And now Pope Benedict XVI accepts the charge from his Predecessor who, since then, invited all to “rediscover and keep always alive the spirit of Assisi, as a motive of hope for the future”.
In these 25 years the path paved by the Bl. John Paul II, in the implementation of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, has without a doubt made great headway thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit who admirably intertwines the teachings and prophetic gestures of Popes with the lives of many witnesses, ancient and new charisms, monastic orders and new ecclesial movements, which have been raised up in the Catholic Church and in other Churches and ecclesial communities.
The Holy Spirit is the one who guides history in the unraveling of this grand design for unity, despite the many shadows that loom over our planet. We are witnesses to this. Almost by surprise, the great unexplored page of interreligious dialogue is being opened also in our Movement. Chiara Lubich saw a sign of the Holy Spirit in the great interest shown for her spiritual experience on the part of representatives of various religions who were at Guildhall, London, in 1979, when she received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
From that moment numerous initiatives have taken place over the past 30 years. The surprise continues as we see how the spiritual path along which God has led us intersects with other spiritual paths, preserving our own identity while instilling a constant missionary zeal as witnesses of Jesus Christ, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. This allows us to meet and understand the faithful of humanity’s great religious traditions.
This has been the path of our experience. In 1972 when Chiara invited the youth to become protagonists in the development of the new world, she consigned to them what she defined as: “a powerful weapon of love”, “the model for recomposing the unity of the world”: Jesus crucified who cries out in abandonment to the Father. “It’s up to you to relive that cry in order to give an indispensable and decisive start to the turning point that history faces”.
The crucified and risen Lord is the key that opens dialogue even in the most difficult circumstances, the model of that radical and selfless love, of that kenosis, of that emptying love which is necessary in order to accept the other.
Unexpected were the requests for Chiara to speak before grand assemblies of Buddhists in Tokyo, before Buddhist monks and nuns in Thailand, before Muslims in Harlem, and before followers of traditional religions in Cameroon. And, invitations continued to be extended to me — as witnessed by my recent trips to Africa and Asia, where I reaffirmed, to my great wonder, how love and unity are inscribed in the dna of every human being.
Now the dialogue between religions can no longer be limited to leaders, scholars and specialists. It must become a dialogue of the people, a dialogue of life, which always appears to be more and more indispensable for peaceful coexistence in our cities, in our countries, where we find ourselves living shoulder to shoulder with Muslims and Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. It is a chronicle to be discovered and possibly invented, without being dismayed by the rumblings of intolerance and violence.
Daily witness paves the way. We’ve experienced this all over the world. For instance in Algeria, there was an strict idea of Islam as closed and impenetrable, and the Christian minority were in a defensive position. But since the 1960s a new horizon opened: a deep and spiritual dialogue began to develop among Muslims and Christians.
“You were such a magnificent example of coherence between what you say, what you do, and what you are. You reached out to us, melting a sea of ice and destroying the walls that separated us, to build an indestructible bridge”. These are the words of a Muslim, Sidi Ahmed Benchouk, Prefect of the Tlemcen Region, which he addressed to Ulisse Caglioni, a Focolarino stationed in Algeria since 1966. The words were spoken at Ulisse’s funeral in 2003 at Castel Gandolfo, Italy. In a long letter, a group of Muslim friends wrote: “He always witnessed his faith. For us he was a model of a believer. He was a man of God, a man who was part of us”.
We have experienced the true face of Islam and the power of peace and dialogue in other crucial places as well, in Turkey, the Holy Land, Lebanon, Pakistan, the United States, not even to mention Europe. In all of these places we meet Christians and Muslims who testify that you can leave fear behind and reach out to discover the other, you can influence fraternal coexistence in the cities of the world. In Italy at a recent gathering of the Movement, an imam declared: “I have learned not to give in to the logic of ‘friend-enemy’, but to wager on the unity of the human family which is linked by a bond of interdependence and fraternity, to look at the other with the certainty that I will find in him or her an unknown wealth”.
Starting now, let us journey on toward and pray for the encounter in Assisi this October. In expectation of the surprises that the Holy Spirit has in store for us.
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