ASSISI, Italy (CNA/EWTN News)—Pope Benedict XVI used his address at the World Day of Peace gathering in Assisi to reflect on how faith brings peace to the world and how its abuse can lead to violence.
“It is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force,” the Pope said to world religious leaders in the Umbrian hill town.
The summit, entitled “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace,” was convened to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first World Day for Peace, first held by Pope John Paul II in 1986.
Pope Benedict charted how the nature of the threat of global violence has changed in those 25 years with the decline of the Cold War. And yet, he noted, “violence, as such, is potentially ever present, and it is a characteristic feature of our world.”
He said that today’s post-Cold War “world of freedom” “has proved to be largely directionless, and not a few have misinterpreted freedom as somehow including freedom for violence.”
This violence has manifested itself in two seemingly contradictory fashions — religious violence and anti-religious violence.
The most obvious manifestation of the former, he suggested, is terrorism, where “in the eyes of the perpetrators, the overriding goal of damage to the enemy justifies any form of cruelty.” Thus, “everything that had been commonly recognized and sanctioned in international law as the limit of violence is overruled.” In this case, “religion does not serve peace, but is used as justification for violence.”
This plays into the hands of the “post-Enlightenment critique of religion,” which maintains that “religion is a cause of violence, and, in this way, it has fueled hostility towards religions.” At the same time, the Pope added, this analysis is not entirely without historical foundation.
“As a Christian I want to say at this point: Yes, it is true; in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith,” he said.
“We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature.”
It is, therefore, the task of all Christian leaders “to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God’s peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.”
Yet the removal of God from human society, the Pope observed, has never resulted in harmony and peace but, instead, the “denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds,” because mankind no longer recognizes “any criterion or any judge above himself.”
“The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence,” he stated.
Such God-less violence is not only true of state-sponsored atheism, but also of modern secularized societies where “the worship of mammon, possessions and power is proving to be a counter-religion, in which it is no longer man who counts, but only personal advantage.” One obvious but specific example of this, he said, is the illegal drug trade into which many are “seduced and destroyed,” both “physically and spiritually.”
“Force comes to be taken for granted,” in many parts of the world, and so “peace is destroyed, and man destroys himself in this peace vacuum.”
Finally, Pope Benedict turned his comments to the rise of agnosticism in the modern world. For the first time, the Assisi gathering involved atheist and agnostic representatives.
Agnostics, he said, are people “to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God.” While they do not simply assert “there is no God,” they still suffer from his absence and, yet, said the Pope, they are “inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness.”
Their presence in society can blunt the “false certainty” of militant atheists, but “they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property,” such that they would “feel vindicated in using force against others,” he said.
Pope Benedict also acknowledged that the agnostic’s search for God can sometimes be hindered by the behavior of religious believers, “so all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.”
The Pope concluded by assuring all gathered that “the Catholic Church will not let up in her fight against violence in her commitment for peace in the world.”
More than 300 delegates from 50 countries gathered in Assisi to commit themselves to global peace, but, as expected, they did not pray together.
The papal-led party set off early this morning on a chartered train from the Vatican’s seldom used train station. Along the 125-mile route, the engines three times slowed down to 10 miles per hour to allow the local people in the towns of Terni, Spoleto and Foligno to cheer the Pope as he passed by. Upon arrival in Assisi, the Pope was met by cheering crowds who waved a welcome banner written in German.
The delegates first gathered in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, where they were welcomed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
“The experience of these 25 years invites us even more intensely and with a great sense of urgency,” said the Cardinal Turkson, “to re-commit ourselves today, with the gift of reason and the gifts of faith, to become more and more pilgrims of truth and make our world a place of greater and greater peace.”
His address was followed by a short film recalling the events of the inaugural Assisi gathering in 1986. Most of the pilgrims watched the movie on large television screens outside the basilica.
Back inside the church, the summit then heard from a long succession of religious leaders — some Christian and others not — including an atheist philosopher.
Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, explained how their dialogue was not an exercise in seeing all religions as equal but, “on the contrary, the vision that we praise is interreligious dialogue,” he said. This dialogue “has a very special sense, which comes from the ability of religions to invest in the same field of society to promote peace.”
The Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, praised Blessed Pope John Paul II as a man who “believed passionately that the concerns of human beings in our age for justice and stability were matters that demanded a common witness from people of faith, without any compromise of our own particular convictions and traditions.”
The speeches by Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Williams were followed by words from other Christian leaders as well as representatives of Judaism, Yarubaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and, finally, the French philosopher Julia Kristeva, who represented nonbelievers.
She noted that “for the first time homosapiens are capable of destroying the earth and themselves in the name of their beliefs, religions or ideologies,” while simultaneously, “for the first time men and women are able to reassess in total transparency the human religious impulse which is innate.” Kristeva asserted that the diversity of today’s meeting in Assisi showed that “the hypothesis of destruction is not the only possibility.”
Following the meeting in the basilica, Pope Benedict and the delegates made their way to a nearby Franciscan convent for “a frugal lunch,” followed by a period of silence for individual refection and prayer. Unlike the past Assisi gatherings, the day did not include any common prayer.
The Pope’s thinking on such matters, and the Assisi meeting in general, was revealed in a letter published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Oct. 26. The letter was written earlier this year to a longtime friend and Lutheran pastor who allowed the contents to be made public at a conference in Rome earlier this month.
“I understand very well,” wrote the Pope to Pastor Peter Beyerhaus on March 4, “your concern about participating in the encounter of Assisi. But this commemoration would have been celebrated in any case, and, in the end, it seemed to me the best thing to go there personally, in order to try to determine the overall direction.”
“Nonetheless,” said the Pope, “I will do everything I can to make a syncretistic or relativistic interpretation of the event impossible, and to make it clear that I will always believe and confess what I had called the Church’s attention to with Dominus Iesus.”
Later on in the afternoon, the Assisi delegates made a joint pilgrimage to the final resting place of St. Francis, where they renewed their common commitment to peace.
At a ceremony outside the church where the saint is buried, the Pope said that today’s event “is an image of how the spiritual dimension is a key element in the building of peace.”
“From my heart, the Pope said, “I thank all of you here present for having accepted my invitation to come to Assisi as pilgrims of truth and peace, and I greet each one of you in St. Francis’ own words: May the Lord grant you peace; il Signore ti dia pace.”