Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Assisi 2011: A decisive stand for human dignity

I was away from home at the time of the meeting in Assisi on 27th October. These reports give a summary of the events of the day and a sense of its underlying meaning: Assisi 2011: Card. Tauran on religions building peace and Pilgrims of truth , pilgrims of peace. It has been widely noted that Assisi 3 has not included a time of common prayer - indeed, the element of prayer from the Catholic point of view was expressed at the Vatican on the eve of the day of pilgrimage.

The full text of Pope Benedict's intervention during the meeting is published here, on the Vatican news website. The Pope, to roughly summarise, identifies three key challenges for peace. Firstly, there is a violence that is motivated by religious belief though it is in fact a contradiction of the true nature of religion. Secondly, there is a violence that arises from the denial of God, and the resulting removal of any sense of constraint on the behaviour of a person towards others. And thirdly, there are those who genuinely seek what is true, and therefore ask questions of both religious believers and of non-believers in what is in essence a search for peace. But do read the whole address to get the full sense of Pope Benedict's words.

At the beginning of his address, Pope Benedict referred to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, an event which took place three years after the first Assisi meeting that was being marked this year. It is interesting to note in this passage the close relation that Pope Benedict draws implicitly between the terms "freedom" and "peace" (my emphasis added in bold):
Twenty-five years have passed since Blessed Pope John Paul II first invited representatives of the world’s religions to Assisi to pray for peace. What has happened in the meantime? What is the state of play with regard to peace today? At that time the great threat to world peace came from the division of the earth into two mutually opposed blocs. A conspicuous symbol of this division was the Berlin Wall which traced the border between two worlds right through the heart of the city. In 1989, three years after Assisi, the wall came down, without bloodshed. Suddenly the vast arsenals that stood behind the wall were no longer significant. They had lost their terror. The peoples’ will to freedom was stronger than the arsenals of violence. The question as to the causes of this dramatic change is complex and cannot be answered with simple formulae. But in addition to economic and political factors, the deepest reason for the event is a spiritual one: behind material might there were no longer any spiritual convictions. The will to freedom was ultimately stronger than the fear of violence, which now lacked any spiritual veneer. For this victory of freedom, which was also, above all, a victory of peace, we give thanks. What is more, this was not merely, nor even primarily, about the freedom to believe, although it did include this. To that extent we may in some way link all this to our prayer for peace.

But what happened next? Unfortunately, we cannot say that freedom and peace have characterized the situation ever since. Even if there is no threat of a great war hanging over us at present, nevertheless the world is unfortunately full of discord. It is not only that sporadic wars are continually being fought – violence as such is potentially ever present and it is a characteristic feature of our world. Freedom is a great good. But the world of freedom has proved to be largely directionless, and not a few have misinterpreted freedom as somehow including freedom for violence. Discord has taken on new and frightening guises, and the struggle for freedom must engage us all in a new way.

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