april 26, Wednesday -  Opening Session – Gaston Hall, Healy Hall
Religion and Cultures: The Courage of Dialogue

Andrea Riccardi
Founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio

Dear Friends,

it is with great joy that I speak at the opening of this meeting of ours. Today we are all here, representatives of different religions and cultures, at Georgetown University to which I am linked by a great friendship besides being also one of its alumni. I am grateful to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, a true man of dialogue. I was able to see this during a shared mission in Moscow! And I want to offer a special thanks to my friend John DeGioia who is a man who believes that the University should be a place where peace can be built.

Here we can find a world of culture, our friends from the United States, together with a delegation of men and women who have lived dialogue in many parts of the world.

This is what we are.

For twenty years we have been pilgrims of dialogue among people of different religion. We started back in 1986. It was then, that the Pope John Paul II invited the leaders of the different religions to pray, one next to the other, for peace in Assisi. The Cold War was still going on. The pope had understood that religions could be either the gasoline for the flame of conflict or the water that extinguishes the fire of war. At the end of that memorable day, on the hill of Assisi, full of olives branches and swept by wind, next to the tomb of Saint Francis, a prophet of peace, John Paul II said: “Let us continue to spread the message of peace. Let us continue to live the spirit of Assisi”.

We in Sant’Egidio, took this seriously. We thought this was a great intuition! The Community of Sant’Egidio, born in Rome in nineteen-sixty-eight, is today spread in seventy countries of the world (twenty-five of them are African countries, and it is also present in the United States). The Community felt it had to take the spirit of Assisi seriously, because it is a great resource of peace.

We work with the poor. Everybody can live Sant’Egidio as a simple life of service and of faith.

The poor are the first victims of war, the mother of all poverty. Religions cannot be insensitive to the cry of those who ask for peace! From 1986 we have been working to favour encounter. One year after the other we became pilgrims of peace: in Rome, in Barcelona, in Lisbon, in France, in Germany, in Bucharest, in Romania, in Malta and in Sicily, in the very heart of the Mediterranean Sea, in Maputo, in Mozambique.

In 1989, for the fifty years of the beginning of Second World War, we gathered in Warsaw, that was still under the Communist power. The climate was that of trepidation and hope. The Berlin wall was beginning to shake. On those days Christians, Jews, Muslim, leaders of all religions proclaimed together: “war never again!”. At the end of the meeting we held a pilgrimage to the monument of the horror of war: Auschwitz.

In a Communist country it became clear that prayer was at the root of peace.

Six years later, in 1995, inside the walls of the Old city of Jerusalem, for the first time, Jews, Christians and Muslim spoke about peace. Coexistence between believers of these three religions is a condition for peace . These are only two of the stops in a long path.

Today we are in Washington, a delegation of those who have walked on this path, a caravan that started back in Assisi. We had to come in the United States. We had to come after September 11th.

The path of dialogue started a century ago, it started from Chicago. Some religious of different faiths met in 1893. But through their society the United States have taught the world that there is the need of living together between people of different cultures and faiths. They taught that peace is built in liberty. Many persecuted people have looked at this land as a refuge in liberty.

We have walked a long way from Assisi to here. Along this path men and women who ignored each other began to see one another as brothers and sisters. Friendships were born, bridges were built. Walls have fallen down. The spirit of Assisi is a wind that blows and that breaks down the barriers that men and women build among themselves and within themselves.

The Spirit of Assisi is the building of bridges. There is a civilization that must be realized in the world. It is the civilization of coexistence, in freedom, in peace and in respect. The proposal that comes from Assisi is not dialogue between experts, it is showing the good of living together: that peace that does not fear diversity.

The spirit of Assisi is not giving up our identity. I speak as a Christian: it is because of my faith that I love the others who do not share it, it is because of my faith that I dialogue with them, that I want to live in peace with them. The spirit of Assisi is not denying differences. It would not be respectful for millions of believers.

Differences exist. We believe in a different way. We pray in a different way. But differences cannot be the reason to hate one another. God does not want hatred. He cannot want war and violence.

For John Paul II – he wrote this some years ago – “ praying one next to the other, does not erase differences, it shows the profound link that makes of us all humble men and women who are in search of that peace that only God can give”. Prayer is at the root of peace. The Pope also added that “religions, today much more than in the past, must understand their historical responsibility in working for the unity of the human family”. Many believers understood it. And this is no small victory. How many people have been rescued from ignorance or from fanatical forces or from hatred for the other! How many have become friends of peace?

Living together is not easy in today’s world. This is the great problem. This is shown by the striking series of ethnic or national conflicts, some of them even with a religious background. We are in a time in which too many are able to make war having at their disposal fearful armaments. Armed struggle has become popular once again. Terrorism, the ancient plague, today uses powerful weapons and instruments of communication, so much so that it sometimes seems moved by an invisible hand. But terrorism mortally debases the cause which it wishes to defend. Striking the innocent and children? Even the sons and daughters of your enemies are not enemies but they are only children.

Men and women disoriented by globalization are tempted to fundamentalism, by that fanatical illusion that sacrifices faith and humanity. Hundreds of millions are the disoriented men and women of this world, some of them are prone to the most extreme actions. It is a reality we have to deal with. Who will speak to them? The world is full of disoriented people. Disorientation is also the product of the great poverty of the South of the world, because poverty uproots people. It is a world of uprooted people that faces the future. It is a risk we think little about. I recently completed a long trip throughout Africa, where the Community of Sant’Egidio is present in twenty-five countries, and I met so many young people who thirst for a better tomorrow. I was in the heart of Guinea Conakry and I saw a boy along the road with a T-shirt with the image of the most well known international terrorist. I asked him if he knew who it was and he answered: “Someone who is fighting for justice”.

It is we believers who must have the courage to be those who fight for justice and to be known as such! There is no justice without respect for the diversity of other people and for their freedom! We have to have the courage to speak with everyone! Is the spirit of Assisi naïve in this world that has become barbaric? If there are clashes written in our future, we must then multiply encounters. In fact, in one of his messages, the most known terrorist of our time has declared: “our response to dialogue is death”. But our response to death is dialogue! A few can destabilize the world for many. But also a few men and women of dialogue can create networks of peace.

Our dream is that every true believer may discover in his faith the reasons to love and respect the other person. And it is a dream that is becoming a reality. Thanks to your commitment in these days it will become even more of a reality in our time! Those who do not desire life, love and liberty do not want dialogue. But we want dialogue because we love life, we love the life of everyone, the life of the others. And we love the beauty of living together even if we are different.

Copyright © 2006 Comunità di Sant'Egidio