Sant'Egidio Founder's Address at Sicily Event

Andrea Riccardi at «Peoples and Religions» Meeting

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PALERMO, Sicily, SEPT. 3, 2002 ( Here is a translation of the address delivered by Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, at the opening of the «Peoples and Religions» meeting.

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I am glad to speak at this meeting, in which so many men and women of different religions, believers and humanists, take part. The participation of so many people — from Palermo and from so many places in the world — shows their interest in a theme so crucial in these days: «Faiths and Cultures between Conflict and Dialogue.»

Our meeting takes place on the threshold of the first anniversary of Sept. 11, the terrible terrorist attack in the United States. Much has been said and written about those tragic events. In a certain sense a great deal of international politics is still under the influence of what happened one year ago. Much has changed and greatly so. Worry, uncertainty, mistrust, anxiety for the future have become part of the international scene. Alexander Adler thus entitled his geopolitical essay: «J’ai vu finir le monde ancien…»

A world has indeed come to an end: There is a sharp perception of a deep change in the relationships among peoples. Maybe an optimistic vision of the relationships among cultures and peoples has ended: It has proven to be too naive. After our last meeting in Barcelona and after Sept. 11, we heard the question: Has the season of dialogue come to an end? What is the use of dialogue among cultures, peoples, religions?

Somebody stressed the naiveté of dialogue itself, while already buried suspicions have risen again. Dialogue naively opens the doors to violence, and to violence in the name of religion, doesn’t it? This observation may seem reasonable but, to echo the words of Serge Latouche: perhaps it is really not so reasonable. These observations ripen in fact in a soil of pessimism. This pessimism influences international relationships and, inside the different societies, it generates a climate that sharpens tensions.

Our times seem, unfortunately, to be more characterized by tense relationships than gratuitous meetings. It seems as if the climate of hope and sometimes of euphoria that arose after the 1989 events ending Communism in the East (and Professor Geremek is a witness of this period), the democratic processes in Africa (in which many of those present have been actively involved), and the Israeli-Palestinian agreements and other events, has been canceled in the ’90s following one blow after the other: from the events in the former Yugoslavia and in Kosovo, to the crises in the Great Lakes region in Africa, from the situation of striking violence in the Middle East, to the difficulties of some Latin American countries and the many terrorist movements, and so on. Thus, Sept. 11 would definitely seem to have buried that climate of hope.

In this period, during which one wonders how to defend oneself, what is the sense of continuing [these] meetings of ours in the spirit of dialogue? Yes, many certainties have been put in crises, but this time has also been a time of trial, which has strengthened what is more genuine in men’s hearts and in peoples’ lives.

The spirit of dialogue is not finished. This spirit has been named the spirit of Assisi: that is, dialogue among religions and the search for peace, believing that, from the depths of each great religious tradition, a genuine message of peace may arise, although through different paths.

With this same spirit, in 1986 the leaders of the great world religions and John Paul II gathered in Assisi, while the Cold War was still going on and the countries looked at each other so differently than they do today. Year after year, the Community of Sant’Egidio has continued to promote these meetings in the spirit of Assisi: These meetings have taken the shape of a free and participative dialogue among believers, and among humanists and believers, and have converged toward a message of peace starting from the prayer of the different religions.

These meetings have not only released a bit of energy for peace. Dialogue is also a proposal that goes beyond the borders of the religious world and becomes a method for the creation of peace. Mozambique has developed a solid democracy after a war that resulted in 1 million deaths.

These encounters of dialogue have created a climate of understanding and, I would say, of affection among the representatives of different religious worlds, which are also historically distant. Two years ago we were in Lisbon in a moment when some shadows were cast on dialogue among religions; last year we were in Barcelona enjoying a great participation of people searching for religion. And I mention the request for forgiveness by Patriarch Policarpo, in the name of the Lisbon Catholic Church, directed toward the Jews, in front of the Dominican church.

Today we gather together in Palermo, in Sicily, in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea. We are conscious of the difficult months that have elapsed since the last meeting in Barcelona and of the many worries for the future. We believe, however, that the meeting among the spiritual traditions and the religions of our contemporary world is nowadays still more necessary than yesterday.

Pessimism and fear, which weaken men and women, cannot win: that fear makes them at the same time aggressive, yet intimately frail. The strength of believers is not that of arrogance, but that of holiness and wisdom: the inner strength of those who, beyond the more or less difficult events, can show the way of goodness.

It is a path that many men and women have trod upon in the centuries, also in the last century, showing a strength that led them to martyrdom because of their own faith and because of the common cause of peace. The living religions have an inner force that can show the way of good.

It has been already many years, starting from very different situations and traditions (and never denying this difference), that we have become convinced that good is identified in dialogue, in understanding. We do not want to be overwhelmed by the wages of pessimism that generate mistrust, narrowness, bitter retreat within oneself.

However, as it emerges from the reading of the closing appeals (15 till now) of all our meetings, we have constantly stressed just this: Religions are decisive in establishing a relationship of brotherhood among peoples. Paraphrasing Patriarch Athenagora, a Christian of rare wisdom, we should say: sisterly religions, brotherly peoples.

But, in our world, religions can be involved in nourishing conflicts, in making borders holy, in blessing atavistic differences and in baptizing the new ones. Religions are put under the ambiguous pressure of the partisan and nationalistic parties. Many men and women, as disoriented as they are today, search sometimes in religions emotional material to build protective walls and to cut bridges which are deemed dangerous.

From this arise frightening fundamentalisms — which are the infant diseases of religions: According to them, human life can be sacrificed, and peace is a defeat. However, our contemporary world is ravaged not only by religious fundamentalisms, but also by ethnic fundamentalisms, which have sacrificed so much to the idolatry of a group or of a race.

Pessimism can find many reasons to spread itself. It conquers confused hearts that do not have spiritual points of reference, but are prisoners of a consumers’ logic: to live is to have and to consume. On the wall of one of the most refined Italian cities, Florence, I saw: «Do not think, just consume!» That logic affirms itself in the great voids left open by the end of Socialism, which was an oppressive regime but also a common political faith of many people.

This logic nourishes itself through observation of worrying international scenarios, like those of war and terrorism that leave us with the impression of hard times. This logic is confirmed
by many situations of tension: There is too much hatred, much resentment, too much fear spread along the ways of this world and they sometimes take the path of violence, even of mad terrorism. Yes, there are reasons to say that it is time to close ourselves, not to open ourselves to dialogue, that these are times made of iron, not of handshakes.

All the same, this is not the fundamental attitude that the religions, even given their differences in spirituality and their ways of faith, have toward man. They — and I repeat it — in their diversity, speak to humanity that they consider weak and sinful, but indicate as well a way (or ways) to reach perfection, considering that humanity is not lost despite its inherent weakness and evil. The religions communicate to man in the hope that, with the spiritual arms of faith, he can become better.

Today the religions have a great responsibility to communicate — to the women and men who feel disoriented in our times — the hope of becoming better. And — as we said in Barcelona last year — the religions and the religious communities live today in the same space, they live together, next to each other. Living together can be most fertile, but can also be risky, and it can be easy to yield to conflicts or at least to contempt. Pessimism turns to contempt, and contempt can always turn into violence.

Religious leaders cannot yield to this. They are, and they must be, aware of this: of their responsibility, according to their own spiritual traditions, to communicate hope and at the same time achieve a climate of peace, an education for the love of peace.

This is the nature of the responsibility of religion. The 20th century, the most secular century since the beginning of history, seemed, until yesterday, a period of tremendous crisis, if not the death of religion. It has ended, instead, as a period in which religion is the relevant actor of history.

The responsibility of religious men and women has grown with respect to what could have been imagined just yesterday. At the same time, in a world where closeness has grown with respect to the past, and in an universe characterized by globalization, this responsibility is not only toward people of one’s own faith, but also toward those who are external to one’s own religious community.

Perhaps, for the first time in history, some religious communities have been brought to seriously consider their responsibility toward religious people of a different faith, external to their own. External, but not foreign. No one, much less a religious community, in our contemporary world, can live only for oneself, concentrated on oneself and one’s own — however noble — problems. This change is not trivial, especially for those religious communities that are historically used to living alone. But this is not the case today. No one lives alone and only for oneself.

Greater closeness, mutual understanding, dialogue, religious invocation of peace — are all more necessary today than in the past. It is our common conviction that we have practiced, not in unreal syncretism, but in that art of dialogue that characterizes our discussions and our encounters. This conviction, after Sept. 11 and after this past year, has been reinforced.

It has been questioned whether dialogue is still useful. Significantly, at the beginning of 2002, John Paul II invited once again religious leaders from all over the world to Assisi, the second such occasion since 1986, to reaffirm the value of dialogue and the spirit of Assisi that respond to certain abysses of violence in the heart of peoples.

No, finding a way today between believers of diverse religions is not at all irrelevant. On the contrary, it is more necessary today than ever before: It is vital when the clouds of misunderstanding become dense, when the air we breathe is heavily pessimistic. We can say this because of the experience of our yearly encounters, that have gone on now for 15 years.

There has in this way been created, we can say, a «community» of religious men and women, and leaders, brought together by a history of encounters and of dialogue, who have learned the necessity to live with others of different religions, and not in ignorance which can become harvest to suspicion and violence.

The image of many religious leaders, reunited together, up until a few decades ago, would have seemed to be an illusory dream. Instead, today it has grown in the framework of this spirit of dialogue and respect. It is an image that has been interiorized in the heart and in the minds of many. We have become attached to this image, as to the images of the ending prayer. We are convinced that these represent a picture of the future: the deepening of one’s own faith while staying together in peace.

The path together is animated by dialogue, from our friendly conversations to debate of different points of view, from the testimony of one’s own spiritual tradition, to the expression of one’s own religious experience. Dialogue, in these three days, is expressed in the many round tables or debates held in the city, as indicated in our program. Each round table creates a crossroad between people representing different spiritual traditions and is based on the method of sincere confrontation that characterizes our encounters and that has enriched us over the years.

Our present encounter in Palermo is not meant to avoid existing problems, however, and it is for this reason that the overarching theme is: «Religions and Culture Between Conflict and Dialogue.» We are convinced that there does not exist a determinism of religious cultures that drives them, for internal reasons, toward conflict with other religions or civilizations.

History is complex, and sometimes it sweeps the moods of populations and even believers in faith onto the road of conflict that leads to dark days of violence and struggle. The past century unfortunately saw such sad events. Today, the 1st of September is — besides being the liturgical remembrance of Sant’Egidio — the 53rd anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War.

Our present meeting, which indeed represents the convergence of the world of religions, together in Palermo in dialogue to dissolve the many roots of violence, will end on that day, the 3rd of September, which recalls a historically sad event of importance for Sicily and for Italy: It is the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of General Della Chiesa and his wife.

Along with that sad event of over 20 years ago we can also identify the many sacrifices of men and women, of Falcone, Borsellino, Father Pugliesi and so many others that it’s not possible to name them all: They resisted the violence of evil in the name of freedom, and of democracy. They help us remember that there are no great works without sacrifice — and that men and women can stop the violence and create a better world.

To remember this is, for us, a way to honor the city of Palermo and all of Sicily, not only for the enormous history that we feel here, but also for the hospitality that we receive. And, in particular, besides the civil authorities that we have heard speak, I would like especially to thank Cardinal Archbishop Salvatore De Giorgi, who strove together with us for the realization of this meeting.

People are able to define their own times. There is no absolute chromosomal determinism that leads to aggressiveness in religions. But believers can do a lot, if convinced they are helped by God: God will give strength to his people, so says the Psalm. «He blesses his people with peace.»

We are able to do a lot in our environment and in our world. It is therefore important to globalize this climate of liberty and of religious liberty that renders everyone responsible.

It is also necessary to be conscious, as I said before, of the new responsibilities of the believers. The world today is, in a deep, concrete and spiritual way, different from the world in the 20th century. Today along with the problem of peace
there is the problem of widespread poverty, deteriorating environmental conditions, which is a tragedy for many today and will be so for everyone in the future.

The majority of the religious communities acknowledge the radical change in the climate in which we live our faith today: This asks for changes, new challenges, sainthood lived more strongly. Religious people can give their fellow believers a profound orientation through an inspired word and the example of a life that is lived according to their faith.

In the heart of our meetings we therefore have always felt the need for a personal and spiritual renewal. Our meetings should be characterized not only by an external closeness, but by an internal and spiritual closeness faithful to our own religious tradition. It is no coincidence that one of the many debates that will take place during these days is dedicated to the self-criticism of the religions: being convinced that trying to improve ourselves, we will be able to better communicate our testimony of peace. We can talk freely about this, without fear, among people of different faith: It is the expression of a spiritual climate that has been created, deeply marked by faith.

In this globalized world, among so many disoriented people, and the abysses of new conflicts, we see as a reaction the closing of one’s mind and fear that can be common to many: any community, any religious tradition. It is the great temptation of our time. It is the widespread experience of fundamentalism, but not only that.

We are therefore convinced that more dialogue is necessary. What would the world be like, if there had not been dialogue? The network that has been created through dialogue, the fruit of the meetings and work over the past years, protects our hearts from falling into the abyss of indifference or violence.

But it also protects us from the risk which is hidden in the heart of every man and every community, that is the risk of living for themselves, worried for themselves and discussing only internal affairs, without considering that they live in a world full of many different human and religious experiences.

A Christian mystic of the past century used to say that no man is an island. Today we are aware of the profound interdependence of everybody’s destiny. But today thanks to dialogue we know each other better: We do not apply the behavior of one person or group to an entire community, and we have learned to appreciate the spiritual resources of the various religious heritages.

The Community of Sant’Egidio through the voluntary work of many people has put itself at the service of this meeting as for the previous ones: They believe that the work of a single person, the feeling of one’s heart, the actions of one’s own life make the world where they live a better place. We are not resigned to a world which is always the same, unjust, used to conflict and death, careless toward the poor, arrogant in facing those who are different, letting itself slowly and lazily drift toward a destiny of separation and misunderstanding.

For us this is the lesson of living a Christianity which is open and attentive, and in dialogue with others. Our experience is that dialogue can do a lot even where problems are very confusing.

We saw the video of the peace process in Mozambique, of which we celebrate the 10th anniversary this year: It was a process which came to life by learning the lessons of dialogue. An important delegation of Mozambicans are guests in these days, the representatives of the two parties which worked together in the peace process and put an end to a war that cost the lives of more than 1 million people.

It is significant to see several delegations present in Palermo, from countries that live pluralism not only from a religious point of view (where religious pluralism has been a reason for misunderstanding and clashes): like Lebanon, which in the past years has been a model and tragedy for the Mediterranean, or the Ivory Coast, an African land of coexistence between Christians and Muslims, but also of recent tensions which now luckily are being overcome.

Africa is not far from this Mediterranean Sea, a sea that links Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Africa is always present in the heart of our works through many religious representatives and especially the presence of the president of the republic of Burundi, Major Pierre Buyoya, who represents the troubled history of this country in the heart of Africa.

We believe that Africa represents a test for the international community: We cannot accept that such a large part of the continent is left at the margins of the world and of development without being involved in a serious development partnership, abandoned to its wars and diseases, and at the same time called to find an answer to economic problems which it is not prepared to face.

Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East are all present in our discussions during our encounter. Different situations are facing the same question: What can religions do for peace? Religions have their own responsibility in building more complex relations between countries, as is the case of the European Union, where Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions cannot be eliminated from the foundations of a structure, vital not only for our European countries, but also for world balance. The same could be said for the African Union which is at its beginning.

Our gathering of men and women from different religions is not the coming together of the religions against others. The dialogue with secular humanism in its manifold expressions is for us an achievement we cannot do without, which is always present in the heart of our meetings.

For us, dialogue is clearly not the illusion that we are all the same and interchangeable: Dialogue means to be conscious of the diversity of others. The historical relations between the various religious communities are different, too. It would be an illusion, disrespectful and frail to state they are all the same like strange combinations of an intellectual laboratory.

Nevertheless as we see here the representatives from many Christian churches, from many world religions, we realize how much there is that we have in common: a series of spiritual concerns, the orientation toward God, prayer, the sense of the frailty of man but also the confidence in a path of redemption. … These spiritual reference points, similar but diverse, represent a precious heritage for the spiritual ecology in world full of voids.

It is for this that the dialogue and the friendship that is created among believers, and between believers and humanists, is already an accomplishment and a response to a world where differences are greatly felt, and the brutality of war and the contempt for people different from ourselves are overly felt. Finally, thanks for your participation.

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