“We need religion, in order to respond to the thirst for world peace and the thirst for the infinite that dwells in the heart of each man and woman”, Pope Francis said on Wednesday morning, 14 September, in his discourse for the Opening of the VII Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Nur-Sultan, capital of Kazakhstan. It is a thirst that has two “directions”, peace and the infinite, but the same core: the thirst for God. The Pope’s address, as well as those of the other religious leaders who participated in the Congress, focused especially on the first aspect: the thirst for peace, an inevitable outcome in a historical time in which the world is suffering because of that, by now declared and total — no longer “piecemeal” — third world war.
More precisely, the Pope spoke about “the challenge of peace”, a challenge that especially stirs believers “in the name of the fraternity that unites us as children of the same Heaven”. And he vehemently repeated that the religious dimension should not be warped for political aims nor reduced to “a prop for power”: “Mindful of the wrongs and errors of the past, let us unite our efforts to ensure that the Almighty will never again be held hostage to the human thirst for power”.
Francis returned to the theme of memory during his homily for Wednesday afternoon’s Mass in the Expo Grounds. He highlighted that we “do well to keep alive the memory of those sufferings and not forget certain grim moments; otherwise, we can consider them water under the bridge and think that now, once and for all, we are on the right road. No. Peace is never achieved once and for all … it must be achieved anew each day”. In order to do so, however, it is necessary to return to the wellsprings of faith and to free oneself from “those reductive and destructive notions that offend the name of God by harshness, extremism and forms of fundamentalism, and profane it through hatred, fanaticism, and terrorism, disfiguring the image of man as well”.
Already at the end of the 90s, in discussions with Jurgen Habermas, Joseph Ratzinger had debated about the need for the purification of religion. Today the Pope affirms the urgency of returning to “an authentic religiosity. It is time to realize that fundamentalism defiles and corrupts every creed; time for open and compassionate hearts”.
If people are thirsty for peace, then their hearts are thirsty for the infinite. In his discourse, the Pope quotes Abai, the great Kazakh poet who insisted on keeping “the soul alive and the mind clear”, and alongside him, Giacomo Leopardi, the great poet of The Infinite: “‘What is the beauty of life, if one does not go deep?’ (Poems, 1898). Another poet, pondering the meaning of life, placed on the lips of a shepherd in these vast lands of Asia an equally essential question: ‘Where will this, my brief wandering, lead?’ (G. Leopardi, Canto notturno di un pastore errante dell’Asia[ Night-song of a wandering shepherd of Asia])”.
Thirst emerges with all its destructive force in desert-like places and “moments”. In some interventions at the Congress, one could hear the cry over the “desertification” that has attacked the spiritual dimension of humanity. In his discourse, for example, Imam Ahmed Al Tayyeb, Sheikh of Al-Azhar, spoke about the decline of the spiritual dimension and the absence of the moral dimension in contemporary man’s journey. And yet, it is thirst itself, Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince would say, that points to the presence of a well in the desert. Cardinal Zuppi recalled this in a recent interview with “L’Osservatore Romano”: If the image of spiritual desertification is correct, then there must also be water. The desert, he said, in and of itself expresses thirst, the need and search for water. Danish author Karen Blixen observed that “Nobody has seen the trekking birds take their way towards such warmer spheres as do not exist, or rivers break their course through rocks and plains to run into an ocean which is not to be found. For God does not create a longing or a hope without having a fulfilling reality ready for them. But our longing is our pledge”.
The desire for peace and for the infinite express the same thirst, the one felt when one loses trust in God as well as the way in one’s own existential deserts, as the Pope earnestly recalled in his afternoon homily: “How often have we grown dry, disheartened and impatient in our own personal deserts, and lost sight of our journey’s goal! Here too, in this vast country, there is a desert. For all its great natural beauty, it can also remind us of the weariness and aridity that we at times bear in our hearts. Moments of fatigue and trial, when we no longer have the strength to look up towards God”.
Resuming the journey and journeying together, forward and upward. This is the message of the second day of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage of peace and unity in Kazakhstan, the certainty that “confronting our misery, God gives us a new horizon”. It is the living and vital strength of religions, as the Pope emphasized to other religious leaders: “Before the mystery of the infinite that transcends and attracts us, the religions remind us that we are creatures; we are not omnipotent, but men and women journeying towards the same heavenly goal”. (Andrea Monda)