Historian, Founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio
Professor Andrea Riccardi
Founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio
Cracow, 6th September 2009
Mr. President of the Republic,
Your Eminency Cardinal Dziwsz,
Representatives of the Christian Churches and great world Religions,
Seventy years after the outbreak of the world war, we, men and women of different religions have gathered here as pilgrims in the first land to be trampled on by the heavy footsteps of the German army. On 1st September 1939 the invasion of Poland began, a martyr country destined to be annihilated. Within a few years the war would have heaped together all the evil humankind was capable of producing in the 20th century. During the war certain Polish Jews wrote: “We feel as if, inch by inch, we were slipping closer to the abyss, an abyss wide open and ready to swallow us”. With no reason, the abyss of the Shoah swallowed up six million Jews, through the hands of the Germans and their collaborators.
The horror of war is the greatest lesson given to our era, a lesson worth meditating on. War means death for what unites nations that have turned into enemies.
From the abyss of war, however, and from its utter rejection the humanism of our time was born, or born afresh – as Benedict XVI told us today in his message – capable of creating “a culture and lifestyle full of love, solidarity and esteem for the other”. The will of the Europeans to share one destiny was born, never to be at war with one another again. I am very glad for the presence of the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. From the ordeal of war the ideas of liberty were born again, those ideas that led to the end of colonialism; the ideas that liberated Eastern Europe after almost half a century of communist winter. No political culture, no vision of the future, no humanism can ever forget the ordeal by fire of World War II. If humankind is forgetful, it produces ephemeral and insubstantial policies, futureless and imprisoned in the fireworks of a mediatised world.
Men and women who are touched by war are often teachers and witnesses of peace, for they search for what unites peoples. John Paul II, who was born in 1920, was a son of war. Having survived so much evil, he felt the responsibility to communicate the horror of war, to state that there is one common destiny for humankind, which is peace, and not one domineering each other. We are in Cracow, his hometown, a tribute to him. In him some venerate a great Pope. Others venerate a great Christian teacher. All believe he was a great man, of the kind you rarely meet in history. He was a witness of Christian faith, and a teacher of humanism.
At the peak of the cold war, in 1986, John Paul II summoned the leaders of the great world religions to Assisi, the hometown of St Francis, to pray for peace, no longer one against the other, but one with the other. Then the spirit of Assisi began to blow. Cardinal Etchegaray remembers it well, for he was one of the great architects of that event; as does Cardinal Dziwisz, as faithful as a son to John Paul II, who knows how dear that historical appointment was to him. And I grasp this opportunity to thank the Cardinal for his hospitality and generous collaboration. Without him this event would never have been possible; and I thank him for the beautiful liturgy that welcomed us.
The Community of Sant’Egidio understood that Assisi had to continue. I still hear the powerful voice of John Paul II in Assisi in 1986, when he appealed to continue the spirit of Assisi: I felt it as a call. The spirit of Assisi is dialogue among religions, aware of the crucial contribution of religions and of the spirit to peace. Year after year, we have moved to different countries. John Paul II encouraged this pilgrimage. At the end of that unforgettable day in 1986, he said:
“Together we have filled our eyes with visions of peace: they release energies for a new language of peace, for new gestures of peace, gestures which will shatter the fatal chains of divisions inherited from history or spawned by modern ideologies. Peace awaits its builders…”.
Three years later, in 1989, in Poland the chains of ideology were shattered. The end of communism was a peaceful transition, made with the power of the unarmed. In the Seventies and Eighties, people had theorised that history would be changed only by violence or armed revolution.
In 1979, thirty years ago, Karol Wojtyla returned as a pope to Cracow, calling upon the Poles not to surrender to hopelessness. Anything new seemed impossible against the heavy wall of the cold war. Only a new world war – people said – would have thrown down that wall. John Paul II did not want war, but his love for peace was not hopelessness: he believed in the power of the spirit. In 1979 he kindled the spirit of the Poles and sparked a glimmer of hope in a pitch black sky.
In 1989, ten years after that first journey, a tremendous historical change took place, peacefully. The Pope once told me: “In view of 1989, we did not pray in vain in Assisi in 1986!”. Prayer has power over history. On 1st September 1989, together with many religious leaders, the Community of Sant’Egidio was in Warsaw in the name of the spirit of Assisi. We did not pray in vain for peace in Africa. I think of peace in Mozambique, peace in Burundi.
A current exists, which runs deep and tabloids do not perceive it: it is the spirit that changes history. Men and women – sometimes underground men and women, such as those Dostoyevsky describes – do change history. In 1958, when the courageous Polish Primate of the dark years, Cardinal Wyszinski, came to Rome, a great Italian believer, the Mayor of Florence, Giorgio la Pira, saw visions of the future: “Wyszinski is the Church; persecuted, that Church moves forward and wins… The communist empire – in spite of all appearance – is struck in the heart: the walls of Jericho – in spite of all appearance – have already crumbled…”. Many laughed at the visions of this dreamer.
The power of mediocre and short-sighted persons is to ridicule the visions of the great and break them into bits. They laughed at John Paul II when he spoke of Europe from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals during the cold war: in 1989 they were thunderstruck. John Paul II was a great believer. For many of us he was a saint, not an irenic relativist, he was a sturdy believer who believed that dialogue was indispensable for peace, to create a civilisation of living together.
The world after 1989 had the chance to create such a civilisation. The globalised world is a great opportunity for peace. Many preferred to rely on economic globalisation, seen as a kind of providence that leads everything to good (and my friend Michel Camdessus will speak of it). Others started to see the world as governed by the concept of clash, whether of religions or civilisations. And especially after the bloodied terrorist acts of 11th September 2001, we noted the crisis of dialogue. Once again, it was maintained that force and war were the proper means to solve problems. The sad results of this policy are under everybody’s eyes.
Dialogue was pointed out as the way of the weak, a way for losers. But aggressiveness produces more aggressiveness. And despise makes walls of hatred rise again, which were buried only a few decades ago.
We have held fast in these recent years, trusting that dialogue writes a better history. We have held fast when we were asked what use is dialogue or which are its results. Dialogue, like prayer, is something that cannot be measured by short-sighted criteria. What would the world be without prayer?
In its heart, Europe is dialogue, as President Barroso said: “Europe represents a kind of laboratory, made… out of the union of different sovereignties, of respect for diversity”. Dialogue weaves together the threads of unity.
Our world has lost its passion for unity. We can see it in the scepticism towards Europe. We can perceive it in the worshipping of local homelands and the resurgence of nationalism. We can feel it in the distrust for foreigners, as if they were a threat. The drop in the passion for unity is revealed in the scarce concern for Christian unity, as it was felt by the great, such as Paul VI, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, and Russian Metropolitan Nikodim. Without a quest for unity, the globalised world goes crazy and is dangerously fragmented.
By being satisfied with ourselves, with our little world (even religious world), by being content with spiritual shallowness, the magnificent passion for unity is extinguished. Fundamentalism legitimates despise, and feelings of dull-witted self-sufficiency. The passion for dialogue is soured, and an art is lost that is dearly necessary in our contemporary world, where different people live together and no country is self-sufficient. Without dialogue it is hard to live in our little daily world, just as it is on the major scenarios of the world.
For religions dialogue is a spiritual fact. Dialogue is a profound and thoughtful conversion, which draws towards God’s path, starting a dialogue with the One who is beyond us.
It is significant to note that for Muslims this is the holy time of Ramadan, fasting, purification and return to God. It is a great opportunity, and the Prophet says “When Ramadan comes, the gates of Heaven are open, and the gates of Hell are closed, and demons are bound in chains”. A believer of rare intelligence, Pietro Rossano, remembered that “every religion, when it expresses its best, tends to peace”. To return to God mysteriously leads to rediscover the great value of peace. For some religions peace is the name of God. Going deep into one’s faith, then, does not lead to divergence, but to converge towards each other with peace in our eyes. Jesus teaches, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”. Possessing the earth does not mean domineering, defeating or despising the other, rather it means to exercise meekness and understanding.
Karol Wojtyla was astonished by the fabric that unites religions, regardless of their radical diversity: “instead of being surprised – he wrote – that Providence allows us such a variety of religions, we should be astonished by the many common elements we identify in them”.
A globalised world, in its infinite faces, dearly needs unity. Dialogue among religions is the soul of this quest for unity. It is not a rite, it is a passion. The spirit of Assisi drives to publicly witness – as we shall do during the final ceremony on the Market Square, just as in 1986 – our will to be together: diverse and in peace. Dialogue means to patiently weave divided humankind together, it means to be capable of stringing back together the different destinies of peoples. It reveals that mystery of unity hidden behind the events of a globalised world. Dialogue is like a medicine that liberates from the demons of hatred, despise and war.
And the memory of sufferance – as Metropolitan Seraphim said this morning in his beautiful speech – is always summoned in our meetings in the spirit of Assisi. In two days’ time, our Congress will turn into a pilgrimage to the edge of the abyss, Auschwitz. There, on a day of fasting, we shall go as pilgrims. Men and women cannot have only an abstract idea of evil, division and war. It is not enough. They need to tread on a place with their feet; they need to see, to feel, to touch. It is the meaning of pilgrimage in all faiths. It is the meaning of the pilgrimage of religions to Auschwitz, to the abyss of evil. There, standing on the edge of the abyss, whose bottom cannot be seen, we shall feel the need to show humanity a different way: that of a common destiny for all peoples in peace.
Seventy years after the outbreak of war, on the streets of beautiful and noble Cracow, just as on the sad pathways of Auschwitz, the measured steps of occupying troops no longer resound, nor do the tired steps of the deportees or those of a humiliated people; rather, we hear the friendly steps of the pilgrims of different religions. Seventy years ago this would not have been possible, when the division of war was added on to those cultural and religious divisions inherited from history. It was possible, twenty years ago, in 1989, when the world was changing. Today, it is possible to be together. It is an opportunity we cannot waste, facing a globalisation gone crazy in the economic crisis. People of different religions meet together, devoid of confusion, seeking what unites men and women, peoples and religions. People of different religions scan the future through dialogue, just as Raimondo Lullo and Nicola Cusano used to do years ago. It shows our will to continue and walk together on the path of dialogue and peace. Being together, with no confusion, nor division, shows the common destiny of humankind. This destiny is waiting for a soul.