Pope gathers religious leaders to combat ‘paganism of indifference’

Pope Francis lights a candle during an interfaith peace gathering outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Sept. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis lights a candle during an interfaith peace gathering outside the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, Sept. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

[Austen Ivereigh] The name of God cannot be used to justify violence, while “peace alone, and not war, is holy”, Pope Francis declared at the closing ceremony of yesterday’s gathering of religious leaders in Assisi, held on the 30th anniversary of the first such meeting called by St John Paul II [See Crux].

“Violence in all its forms does not represent the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction,” the Pope said, before calling on religious leaders to “free ourselves from the heavy burden of distrust, fundamentalism and hate” in order to be “artisans of peace” through prayer and action. Religious leaders, he said, are “duty bound to be strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace.”

Francis arrived in Assisi by helicopter yesterday morning to conclude a three-day meeting of religious leaders organized by the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio under the title “Thirst for Peace: Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue.”

After being embraced by Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the two greeted the other religious leaders present, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch and leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist communities.

After lunch with refugees (see RNS), leaders of other religions went to different areas for their own prayers, while Francis went with the Christian leaders to the lower Basilica for a prayer service with meditations offered by the different leaders. Francis’ reflection was on the thirst of Christ for love, and the indifference that meets the suffering of war.

In his “I thirst” we can hear the voice of the suffering, the hidden cry of the little innocent ones to whom the light of this world is denied, the sorrowful plea of the poor and those most in need of peace. The victims of war, which sullies people with hate and the earth with arms, plead for peace; our brothers and sisters, who live under the threat of bombs and are forced to leave their homes into the unknown, stripped of everything, plead for peace. They are all brothers and sisters of the Crucified One, the little ones of his Kingdom, the wounded and parched members of his body. They thirst. But they are frequently given, like Jesus, the bitter vinegar of rejection. Who listens to them? Who bothers responding to them? Far too often they encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered, the coldness of those who silence their cry for help with the same ease with which television channels are changed.

The Christian and other religious leaders then gathered in the main piazza for the closing ceremony, where Francis took up the theme of what he called the “paganism of indifference”, which he described as “the great sickness of our time”,  “a virus that paralyzes, rendering us lethargic and insensitive, a disease that eats away at the very heart of religious fervour”.

He said that the differences between religions were not the cause of conflict. “Without syncretism or relativism, we have rather prayed side-by-side and for each other,” he said, quoting his predecessors that violence in the name of religion was the antithesis of true religion. “We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence,” Francis said, adding: “Peace alone, and not war, is holy!”

The Pope pointed to “prayer and concrete acts of cooperation” that  “help us to break free from the logic of conflict and to reject the rebellious attitudes of those who know only how to protest and be angry.”

“Prayer and the desire to work together are directed towards a true peace that is not illusory,” he said, adding that peace meant forgiveness, welcome, cooperation and education.

He concluded with a call to religious leaders to be “strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace” and on their behalf appealed to political leaders that “they not remain deaf to God’s appeal to their consciences, to the cry of the poor for peace and to the healthy expectations of younger generations”.

The texts of Pope Francis’ two addresses follow. 

Text (1) Pope Francis’ meditation in presence of Christian leaders

Lower Basilica of St. Francis

Gathered before Jesus crucified, we hear his words ring out also for us: “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). Thirst, more than hunger, is the greatest need of humanity, and also its greatest suffering. Let us contemplate then the mystery of Almighty God, who in his mercy became poor among men.

What does the Lord thirst for? Certainly for water, that element essential for life. But above all for love, that element no less essential for living. He thirsts to give us the living waters of his love, but also to receive our love. The prophet Jeremiah expressed God’s appreciation of our love: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride” (Jer 2:2). But he also gave voice to divine suffering, when ungrateful man abandoned love – it seems as if the Lord is also speaking these words today – “they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (v.13). It is the tragedy of the “withered heart”, of love not requited, a tragedy that unfolds again in the Gospel, when in response to Jesus’ thirst man offers him vinegar, spoiled wine. As the psalmist prophetically lamented: “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps 69:21).

“Love is not loved”: this reality, according to some accounts, is what upset Saint Francis of Assisi. For love of the suffering Lord, he was not ashamed to cry out and grieve loudly (cf. Fonti Francescane, no. 1413). This same reality must be in our hearts as we contemplate Christ Crucified, he who thirsts for love.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta desired that in the chapel of every community of her sisters the words “I thirst” would be written next to the crucifix. Her response was to quench Jesus’ thirst for love on the Cross through service to the poorest of the poor. The Lord’s thirst is indeed quenched by our compassionate love; he is consoled when, in his name, we bend down to another’s suffering. On the day of judgement they will be called “blessed” who gave drink to those who were thirsty, who offered true gestures of love to those in need: “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

Jesus’ words challenge us, they seek a place in our heart and a response that involves our whole life. In his “I thirst” we can hear the voice of the suffering, the hidden cry of the little innocent ones to whom the light of this world is denied, the sorrowful plea of the poor and those most in need of peace.

The victims of war, which sullies people with hate and the earth with arms, plead for peace; our brothers and sisters, who live under the threat of bombs and are forced to leave their homes into the unknown, stripped of everything, plead for peace. They are all brothers and sisters of the Crucified One, the little ones of his Kingdom, the wounded and parched members of his body. They thirst. But they are frequently given, like Jesus, the bitter vinegar of rejection. Who listens to them? Who bothers responding to them? Far too often they encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered, the coldness of those who silence their cry for help with the same ease with which television channels are changed.

Before Christ Crucified, “the power and wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24), we Christians are called to contemplate the mystery of Love not loved and to pour out mercy upon the world. On the cross, the tree of life, evil was transformed into good; we too, as disciples of the Crucified One, are called to be “trees of life” that absorb the contamination of indifference and restore the pure air of love to the world. From the side of Christ on the Cross water flowed, that symbol of the Spirit who gives life (cf. Jn 19:34); so that from us, his faithful, compassion may flow forth for all who thirst today.

Like Mary by the Cross, may the Lord grant us to be united to him and close to those who suffer. Drawing near to those living as crucified, and strengthened by the love of Jesus Crucified and Risen, may our harmony and communion deepen even more. “For he is our peace” (Eph 2:14), he who came to preach peace to those near and far (cf. v. 17). May he keep us all in his love and unite us, so that we may be “one” (Jn 17:21) as he desires.

Text (2): Pope Francis’ address to religious leaders 

Piazza of Saint Francis

Your Holinesses,

Distinguished Representatives of Churches, Christian Communities, and Religions, Dear Brothers and Sisters, I greet you with great respect and affection, and I thank you for your presence here.

We have come to Assisi as pilgrims in search of peace. We carry within us and place before God the hopes and sorrows of many persons and peoples. We thirst for peace. We desire to witness to peace. And above all, we need to pray for peace, because peace is God’s gift, and it lies with us to plead for it, embrace it, and build it every day with God’s help.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (Mt 5:9). Many of you have travelled a great distance to reach this holy place. You set out, and you come together in order to work for peace: these are not only physical movements, but most of all movements of the soul, concrete spiritual responses so as to overcome what is closed, and become open to God and to our brothers and sisters. God asks this of us, calling us to confront the great sickness of our time: indifference. It is a virus that paralyzes, rendering us lethargic and insensitive, a disease that eats away at the very heart of religious fervour, giving rise to a new and deeply sad paganism: the paganism of indifference.

We cannot remain indifferent. Today the world has a profound thirst for peace. In many countries, people are suffering due to wars which, though often forgotten, are always the cause of suffering and poverty. In Lesbos, my dear brother, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and I saw the sorrow of war in the eyes of the refugees, the anguish of peoples thirsting for peace. I am thinking of the families, whose lives have been shattered; of the children who have known only violence in their lives; of the elderly, forced to leave their homeland. All of them have a great thirst for peace. We do not want these tragedies to be forgotten. Rather together we want to give voice to all those who suffer, to all those who have no voice and are not heard. They know well, often better than the powerful, that there is no tomorrow in war, and that the violence of weapons destroys the joy of life.

We do not have weapons. We believe, however, in the meek and humble strength of prayer. On this day, the thirst for peace has become a prayer to God, that wars, terrorism and violence may end. The peace which we invoke from Assisi is not simply a protest against war, nor is it “a result of negotiations, political compromises or economic bargaining. It is the result of prayer” (John Paul II, Address, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, 27 October 1986: Insegnamenti IX,2 [1986], 1252). We seek in God, who is the source of communion, the clear waters of peace for which humanity thirsts: these waters do not flow from the deserts of pride and personal interests, from the dry earth of profit at any cost and the arms trade.

Our religious traditions are diverse. But our differences are not the cause of conflict and provocation, or a cold distance between us. We have not prayed against one another today, as has unfortunately sometimes occurred in history. Without syncretism or relativism, we have rather prayed side-by-side and for each other. In this very place Saint John Paul II said: “More perhaps than ever before in history, the intrinsic link between an authentic religious attitude and the great good of peace has become evident to all” (Address, Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, 27 October 1986: Insegnamenti IX,2, 1268).

Continuing the journey which began thirty years ago in Assisi, where the memory of that man of God and of peace who was Saint Francis remains alive, “once again, gathered here together, we declare that whoever uses religion to foment violence contradicts religion’s deepest and truest inspiration” (Address to the Representatives of the World Religions, Assisi, 24 January 2002: Insegnamenti XXV,1 [2002], 104). We further declare that violence in all its forms does not represent “the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction” (Benedict XVI, Address at the Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World, Assisi, 27 October 2011: Insegnamenti VII,2 [2011], 512). We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone, and not war, is holy!

Today we have pleaded for the holy gift of peace. We have prayed that consciences will be mobilized to defend the sacredness of human life, to promote peace between peoples and to care for creation, our common home. Prayer and concrete acts of cooperation help us to break free from the logic of conflict and to reject the rebellious attitudes of those who know only how to protest and be angry. Prayer and the desire to work together are directed towards a true peace that is not illusory: not the calm of one who avoids difficulties and turns away, if his personal interests are not at risk; it is not the cynicism of one who washes his hands of any problem that is not his; it is not the virtual approach of one who judges everything and everyone using a computer keyboard, without opening his eyes to the needs of his brothers and sisters, and dirtying his hands for those in need. Our path leads us to immersing ourselves in situations and giving first place to those who suffer; to taking on conflicts and healing them from within; to following ways of goodness with consistency, rejecting the shortcuts offered by evil; to patiently engaging processes of peace, in good will and with God’s help.

Peace, a thread of hope that unites earth to heaven, a word so simple and difficult at the same time. Peace means Forgiveness, the fruit of conversion and prayer, that is born from within and that, in God’s name, makes it possible to heal old wounds. Peace means Welcome, openness to dialogue, the overcoming of closed-mindedness, which is not a strategy for safety, but rather a bridge over an empty space. Peace means Cooperation, a concrete and active exchange with another, who is a gift and not a problem, a brother or sister with whom to build a better world. Peace denotes Education, a call to learn every day the challenging art of communion, to acquire a culture of encounter, purifying the conscience of every temptation to violence and stubbornness which are contrary to the name of God and human dignity.

We who are here together and in peace believe and hope in a fraternal world. We desire that men and women of different religions may everywhere gather and promote harmony, especially where there is conflict. Our future consists in living together. For this reason we are called to free ourselves from the heavy burdens of distrust, fundamentalism and hate. Believers should be artisans of peace in their prayers to God and in their actions for humanity! As religious leaders, we are duty bound to be strong bridges of dialogue, creative mediators of peace. We turn to those who hold the greatest responsibility in the service of peoples, to the leaders of nations, so that they may not tire of seeking and promoting ways of peace, looking beyond their particular interests and those of the moment: may they not remain deaf to God’s appeal to their consciences, to the cry of the poor for peace and to the healthy expectations of younger generations. Here, thirty years ago, Pope John Paul II said: “Peace is a workshop, open to all and not just to specialists, savants and strategists. Peace is a universal responsibility (Address, Lower Piazza of the Basilica of Saint Francis, 27 October 1986: l.c., 1269). Let us assume this responsibility, reaffirming today our “yes” to being, together, builders of the peace that God wishes for us and for which humanity thirsts.

 

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