November 2, 2011 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 50, No. 26 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY
On October 27 last week, the Holy Father traveled to Assisi by train with representatives of other Christian bodies and other religions as well as with some non-believers. They were commemorating an initiative of Blessed John Paul II 25 years previous to this when he gathered religious leaders in Assisi for a day of prayer and fasting to invoke God’s guidance to pursue peace in a world different in many ways from the world of today. In his remarks last week, Pope Benedict acknowledged that truth when he asked “What has happened in the meantime?” and noted that three years after the 1986 Assisi event, “The Berlin wall came down, ending the polarization of the world into two superpowers and marking the end of Soviet-controlled Marxism.”
When Assisi 1986 took place Blessed John Paul wanted to have world leaders come together to offer the world an alternative to violent demonstrations and disruptive forces seeking to break down the strength of those who were protecting freedom and trying to make a secure world. We who were involved in that day knew that the wave of demonstrations across Europe culminating in a violent anti-American demonstration in Amsterdam had been inspired, financed and directed by the Soviets in Moscow. Blessed John Paul was convinced that the world needed to see another way for people of good will to show their commitment to peace. That was to gather in the home of St. Francis of Assisi “to be together to pray”; thus showing the world that prayer is essential for the future of humankind and that peace ultimately is a gift from God.
The phrase “to be together to pray” was crucial both in concept and in act. There was no intention and no program to “pray together” as if all prayer is the same and all religions profess the same thing. Each religious tradition offered prayer in its own place with its own adherents. Christians had use of Christian churches. Other religions were able to use halls and gathering spots that were not places of Christian worship. There was to be no “syncretism” as the schismatic Archbishop Lefebvre tried to claim.
The third and conclusive “moment” of that day was in the square in front of the Basilica of S. Francesco, not inside the church. There in the presence of peoples from all religious traditions and all nationalities, adherents of a specific religious tradition gathered in a separate spot and each in turn offered their own individual prayer for peace as the rest of us sat in silence as witnesses of their actions, not as participants in their prayer.
Pope Benedict’s initiative this past week reflected the same convictions but was re-shaped to today’s world and to today’s challenges. The “victory of freedom” after the fall of the Berlin Wall was “a victory for peace” as well. Unfortunately, however, since 1989, new forms of threats to peace have emerged and become ever more active, posing new problems that all believers and all men and women of good will must face together. If, as the Holy Father rightly contends, “the world of freedom has proved to be largely directionless,” then the world of freedom needs to take stock of its own self-imposed limitations if it is going to address the challenges we face in today’s world to freedom, human dignity, justice and peace.
Pope Benedict names the two great challenges as two types of terrorism. The first is the terrorism that would include but not be limited to what we all experienced on September 11, 2001. The capacity to wreak havoc and to kill the innocent is one of the salient features of modern-day terrorism. These acts of random violence fall outside the classical kinds of armed confrontation and thus can be even more destructive of innocent human life. We know that often the perpetrators claim their religious commitment as justification for a violence that destroys others without distinction. Such persons believe they have the right to discard the rule of morality for the sake of their own intended good. But, “in this case religion does not serve peace but is used as a justification for violence.” This is wrong and cannot be justified in the name of religion and certainly not in the name of God.
In 1986 the delegates gathered and in effect rejected that notion, stating by their words and actions that this is not the true nature of religion and violence is not a true expression of religious belief in God. That religious groups, including Christians, have been guilty of doing this is a cause of shame and a reason for acknowledgement, repentance and regret. We Christians must lead the way on this score because such past acts of this sort were an abuse of Christian faith.
But the Pope points out that many are involved today in a “second complex kind of violence which stems from a sense of the absence of God and a denial of God.” With this comes a loss of an essential aspect of our humanity. “The enemies of religion see religion as a source of violence and insist religion must disappear.” “But the denial of God has led to such cruelty” as we have seen in the last century and increasingly today. In place of God we have worship of false gods: power, money, influence, honor, pleasure, escape and all kinds of attempts to gain advantage for oneself at the expense of others. These led inevitably to greater and greater misuses of force ending in violence. When illegitimate force and violence become accepted, “peace is destroyed and man destroys himself in this peace vacuum.”
In Assisi this time, Pope Benedict added a small group of non-believers, a few men and women who are seeking the truth but have been unable to affirm God. Having them take part in this pilgrimage of truth and peace opened a space in the circle of believers for some new “seekers” of peace. The Pope tells us “Such people do not simply assert ‘There is no God’. They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards Him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness.”
None of us knows what fruits these efforts to mobilize all men and women of good will in the search for peace will bear. Only God knows that. Yet we all can be grateful to God who inspired two great spiritual leaders, Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI who have used their moral voice to call one and all to be “pilgrims of truth and pilgrims of peace” even as he commits us, members of Christ’s Church, “not to let up our fight against violence in our Church’s commitment for peace in the world.”