Reflections on the Day of Prayer at Assisi, 24 January

Author: Cardinal Francis Arinze


Cardinal Francis Arinze,
President of the Pontifical Council for Interreliglous Dialogue

Humanity wins if the followers of world religions are convinced that they need to travel together the road to peace.

24 January 2002, will see representatives of the world religions on their way to Assisi. They come at the invitation of the Holy Father. They come to pray. They are aware of the tensions on the international scene. There are disturbing events. There are worries. Things can be better. But they could also get worse. Humanity needs peace. St Francis of Assisi attracts people of many religions because he was brother to everyone, because he loved everyone, because he had an open heart towards all. Representatives of many religions are on pilgrimage to Assisi to beg God in prayer for the gift of peace.

1. Harmony out of religious and cultural plurality

Human society around the world is getting more and more pluralistic from the cultural and religious points of view. The relative ease of modern means of communication and of travel has been a factor. So is the fact of growing interdependence of peoples in matters economic, cultural, social and educational.

This plurality is a fact. People have to learn to accept it. Positive efforts have to continue to promote better mutual understanding and greater collaboration between people of differing religions or cultural backgrounds. Cultures and religions can collide. But they need not collide. Such a clash can be avoided. Indeed, humanity should go beyond avoiding a clash and promote harmony and collaboration.

There are many challenges and tasks which call for the collaboration of people from such varying backgrounds. Examples are greater justice in society, narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, promotion of peace, prevention of war, use of the goods of the earth, and ecological concerns.

Pope John Paul II invites representatives of the various religions to Assisi with this conviction of the necessity of collaboration. He had already stated in 1991: "I am convinced that the various religions, now and in the future, will have a permanent role in the preserving of peace and in building a society worthy of man" (Centesimusannus, n. 60). Ten years later he repeats the same conviction at the closure of the Great Jubilee celebrations: "In the climate of increased cultural and religious pluralism which is expected to mark the society of the new millennium, it is obvious that this dialogue (i.e. interreligious dialogue) will be especially important in establishing a sure basis for peace and warding off the dread spectre of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history" (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 55)

2. Religion teaches love, not violence

Any religion worthy of the name teaches love of neighbour. It is true that the primary dimension of religion is the vertical one: attention to God the Creator who should be adored, praised and thanked. But the horizontal dimension of religion comes in soon after: to accept and respect other people.

The love of neighbour, which Christianity professes as the golden rule of moral conduct (cf. Mt 7,12: "Always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Lord and the Prophets"), is also part of the doctrinal patrimony of other great world religions. I quote here the maxims of six of them:

HINDUISM: This is the sum of duty: Do not do to others what would cause you pain if done to you.
—Mahabharata 5.15.17

BUDDHISM: Hurt not others in ways that you would find hurtful.
—Udanavarga 5,18

CONFUCIANISM: It is the maxim of loving kindness (jin): "Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you".
—Analects (Rongo) 15,23

JUDAISM: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.
—Talmud, Shabbat 31a

ISLAM,. "No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself"
—The Forty-two Traditions of An-Nawawi.

AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION: What yougive [or do] to others, these will give [or do) to youin return
—Rwandan proverb.

God is the God of love and not of hatred; the God of life and not of death, the God of peace and not of war. "The name of the one God must become increasingly what it is: a name and a summons to peace" said Pope John Paul II (NovoMillenio ineunte, n. 55). Those who promote conflict, hatred, violence and terrorism have to be informed that to the extent to which they do that, to that extent they are not good members of any religion. Violence in the name of God of religion is a contradiction, as the Holy Father also said to the Sixth General Assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace on 3 November 1994 (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, XVII, 2 [1994] p. 597-601). The Assisi gathering of 24 January 2002 is saying NO to religious wars and all violent or terrorist acts especially when perpetrated in the name of religion. At the same time people of many religions are implicitly pleading for respect for the fundamental human right to religious freedom and for the cessation of all persecutions and discriminations against people because of their religious belonging.

3. The road to Peace

The road to Assisi is also the road to peace. It is best for humanity if the followers of the various religions are convinced that it is necessary for them to travel together that road that will lead to peace.

This road is marked by acceptance of the fact of interdependence between peoples when. it is freely accepted and generously lived. Then the moral virtue of solidarity is generated. People learn to accept one another, not as enemies or threats, but as co-pilgrims in the journey of life.

Solidarity includes attention to situations of injustice, oppression or repression. It also includes a realistic commitment to the development of peoples. "Development" says Pope Paul VI, "is the new name for peace" (Populorum progressio, n. 76). If people are hungry, homeless, illiterate, without health facilities, and are deprived of their political rights, then we are yet far away from the road to peace.

4. Christianity brings a universal message

The message of love and self-sacrifice which Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, brought into the world is meant for all peoples, languages, cultures and religions. Christ chose to be born in Palestine, in Asia Minor, or West Asia, or Middle East, as some in the West would say today. But the religion he established is for all nations. He came "to gather together into one the scattered children of God" (Jn 11,52).

St Paul, one of the first missionaries, soon brought Christianity into Europe (cf. Acts 16,9-10). As history developed, Christianity has taken on some elements of Greco-Roman culture. Most missionaries until the last century have been from Europe.

But the equation is changing. Christianity came to the Americas five hundred years ago. Apart from North Africa which was Christian from the early centuries, Africa, South of the Sahara, has made great strides in the Christian faith in the past 150 years.

The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples that sent missionaries to Asia (the far East) gave them clear instructions in 1659 to respect the cultures of the new peoples who receive the Gospel and to change only what is incompatible with the Gospel (cf. Instr. of 1659: Collectanea SCPF 1, n. 135, p. 42).

The Church, especially in our times, stresses the necessity and urgency of inculturation. Even if not all missionaries have attained the stature of Father Matteo Ricci on this question, and we admit that some missionaries have made real mistakes, there is no doubt about the teaching of the Church.

It is therefore not correct to identify Christianity with the West or to debit to Christianity the negative elements in Western culture such as liberalism, permissiveness and a secularistic tendency to live as if God did not exist.

5. In humble prayer

Religious people appreciate the human need for God. Prayer wells up from the human heart towards God, the Creator, because the creature man accepts his total dependence on God.

Peace, when all is said and done, remains a. gift from God. Although humanity needs the Governments, the United Nations Organization and various national and international peace associations, the gift of peace is one which above all humanity receives from God as a result of humble prayer. And when prayer is accompanied with fasting and solidarity with the poor, it becomes a stronger pleading before God.

The appreciation of this spiritual dimension in the quest for peace helps to explain why the invitation by the Holy Father to representatives of world religions to come to pray and fast in Assisi for world peace in 1986 was welcomed with great enthusiasm. Our prayer and hope is that the invitation to Assisi on 24 January 2002 will also receive warm welcome and that believers around the world will find ways to be in spiritual union with that event.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
16 January 2002, page 5

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