Pacem in Terris Lecture Series

Lasting Roads To Peace
October 14, 2004

I am very happy to speak in this prestigious University of Georgetown, in the heart of Washington, in front of many illustrious guests: professors, experts, students, and friends.

I have to excuse myself for my weak English.

Your attention is proof of the celebrated American feeling of tolerance and it is also the sign of the interest of this University to listen beyond the way things are said.

I ask myself how it is possible to give an Honorary Degree to a person with such a high level of illiteracy in English? (But only in English!!)

I greet the faculty, students and staff and especially the President of the University.

Among the guests, I see important representatives of the religious world. I greet them all with respect.

Let me especially greet with affection the Community of Sant-Egidio of the United States that I see present here and the person responsible for the Community, doctor Andrea Bartoli. I would also like to greet our International President, Professor Marco Impagliazzo.

I would like to thank the Board of Directors and the whole University for the conferral of this Honorary Degree. I am grateful for this and for this meaningful ceremony.

The conferral of the degree is an honour for me personally. But not only for me. It is an honour for the whole community of Sant-Egidio.

It is, in fact, addressed not only to my work as a scholar, but also to the work of the Community of Sant-Egidio. Because without Sant-Egidio — I have to confess — I would not have this boundless love for peace that I learned in many years of life and matured on the roads of the world.

These roads brought me in contact with many situations of sorrow. I have, in fact, understood the value of peace, from the sorrow of the poor and of those who suffer because of war.

The poor, those who are wounded by war, can teach us the value of peace. We have to listen to them. Their faces, marked by war are more important than a history book.

Even an historian cannot write about war or peace without having looked at the face of those who suffered because of conflicts.

Peace is a value that is often forgotten by those who live well and in peace. On the contrary the women, the mothers, the sisters, the companions of men, can teach us the value of peace. War is often a male activity. Men often forget the value of peace.

In the heart of the last century, more than forty years ago, a great Christian voice resounded, a voice that was able to speak about peace in an extraordinary way. It was John the twenty-third.

His voice is still relevant today.  This Pope is a point of no return for Christian conscience. This old Pope, before dying, published an encyclical on peace: Pacem in Terris in Latin. Peace on Earth. It was his last will.

It is still a question for us: Is peace possible? Is it only a dream?

Back in 1963, peace meant the end of the Cold War. Cold War ended but peace was not achieved. War is an old companion of human history. It always rises again under new forms. It is not easy to divorce history from war. Many other divorces are much easier.

Today the hopes of a peaceful stability that were born after 1989 are over. We are in the midst of terror and in a period of many conflicts.

Have we given up on peace?

But peace remains a dream that a Church, such as the Catholic one, has been pursuing for centuries. It is an ancient Christian dream. It begins with the disciples of Jesus and reaches us today.

It is the most Christian and Human dream of them all.

When his teacher was unfairly arrested, Peter took out the sword. Wasn’t it an heroic action that of defending Jesus? But Jesus said to him: “Put away the sword”(John 18:11). The teacher paid with a death on the cross for his refusal to take the sword.

He is the model of many peaceful people, of many pacifiers, of many true men and women of peace. Jesus is the meek and humble in heart who disturbs the conscience of our civilization. And it is that meek person, the Gospels say, who will judge us at the end. Matthew recalls these words of Jesus: “for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Mt.26:52).

The rabbis used to teach that God, in ancient times, had concluded a covenant with the whole of humanity: the Covenant of Noah after the flood with all the people who were outside the faith of Israel. It is a covenant for everyone, it is independent from our faith or ideas. These are the words of that Covenant in the Bible: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen 9,6). These words are similar to those of Jesus: “do not shed anyone’s blood because your blood shall be shed”.

We must stop blood shedding!

Peace is the most human dream of all. It is also the most Christian dream of all!

John XXIII presented this dream again. This is why they loved him so much even beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church. This is why he was called “the good pope”. It is not because the others were bad or evil, but he was speaking about a dream of humanity: peace! For him humanity had a common good that belongs to all: peace.

Is it naïveté? The old pope had seen two world wars (he had even been drafted in the army during the first one). He knew well that men and women want peace: they want it for their families and for their children. However, ambiguously, people want to make war and make war; they use violence. With violence we want to build peace. But thus we make war, not peace.

For centuries people built their peace by making war or by using violence. European history, great in many aspects, was tragic. In the last century Europeans killed each other to prevail one over the other. The war between Europeans became a World War and it did not end until the American military intervention. Only recently Europeans discovered the value of peace among themselves. But it is not sufficient to be an island of peace in a world of war. The brutal terrorist attack at the train station of Atocha in Madrid, earlier this year, is a clear proof of it. Violence touches everyone: New York, Madrid, Beslan.

Violence becomes brutal: not even children are respected. Terrorism does not look at the faces of its victims, for if they did, how could they not stop in front of the face of a child?

Human beings close their eyes and their hearts. We know it: they cannot give themselves peace. This is why Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives I give it to you” (John 14:26-27). Peace is a gift of God. Peace is a faith. There is a peace that cannot be dissipated by men and women. This is a gift of God.

This peace cannot be vanquished even by the most terrible war. The dream of this peace lives in the heart of humanity, even when they are living within the most atrocious wars. Even during the most horrific conflicts this peace has stood firm as a hope and as a faith. History knows a lot of examples of this during times of war. Those who hid a Jew, during the murderous fury of the Nazi period, continued to believe in peace. They stole a life from violence.

Christian peace is a preventive peace. It is a peace that resists war and that waits for the day when weapons will be silent. A great Russian mystic Saint Seraphim of Sarov used to say: “acquire peace in you and thousands around you will find it.”  We must never underestimate the force of that peace that comes from the heart.

This is also our experience in Sant-Egidio. We welcomed the gift of peace that comes from the Gospel. In this difficult world of ours we must take the Gospel seriously! It is our experience. We try to read and live the Gospel everyday. Every community of ours gathers together to read the Gospel and to pray.

In Rome, in Paris, in Moscow, in New York, in Boston, but also in Conakry, in Guinea , in Havana, in Cuba, in Maputo, in Mozambique, in Salvador and in many other places. They are the Communities of Sant-Egidio.

Those who pray and read the Gospel keep their heart open to peace: to the great peace and to the little daily peace.

Every Community of Sant-Egidio, even the smallest one, is a friend of the poor. In fact if you love peace you have to love the poor!

Poverty in many parts of the world is the fruit of war. Poverty is always violence. The poor teach us the value of peace and the value of life. The poor are not a sociology book to read. They are a love and a solidarity to live.

In our communities, that try to live the Gospel and that are friends of the poor, the dream of peace lives.

This dream becomes factual. Those who dream are also able to be realistic. It is the lesson I draw from the life of the Community of Saint-Egidio. Saint-Egidio is not an institution of peace-makers. It is not a parallel diplomacy. We wanted to build a small community of men and women, who love the Gospel and the poor.

It is not difficult to build Sant-Egidio: we pray together, we are brothers and sisters, we love the poor. 

Sant-Egidio is not a little State Department! However we found ourselves in contact with the hardship of war. In Africa, in Mozambique. War is terrible: it is the mother of all poverty. It makes also the rich poor, but leads the poor to misery.

What should we do in front of war?

What should we have done in front of the war in Mozambique that had caused a million deaths in 10 years? We dreamt peace and we discovered we had a force for peace. Yes, a force that reconciles people.  Gradually and tenaciously, we have built peace in two and a half years of negotiation. And today, that peace signed in 1992 is a reality for the Mozambican people.

Peace is possible and its construction site is not banned even to those who are not specialised. But now that I have a degree I become a specialist as well.

This is why Sant-Egidio continues to work for peace on many fronts: in Africa and in other parts of the world.

We work for dialogue between worlds that today appear unable to understand each other and that maybe are preparing to fight each other tomorrow.

Dialogue is preventive peace. Especially dialogue between religions.

I am coming from a great meeting between leaders of different religions that was held in Milan one month ago, just after Beslan.  From this meeting (where also President DeGioia was among the speakers) came a strong “yes” to dialogue and a “no” to terror. Besides, the most well known terrorist of our time once said:  “they want dialogue, we shall answer with death”.

We answer with dialogue to the logic of death.

It is dialogue in the Spirit of Assisi, launched by John Paul II in 1986): Spirit of Assisi, Spirit of Saint Francis, spirit of dialogue between religion. It is that dialogue that Sant-Egidio continues to promote as the expression of a preventive peace: being one with the other, praying one next to the other.

It may appear easy but it is not.  It is nevertheless possible.

We brought dialogue to many cities: from Rome to Warsaw, from Jerusalem to Barcelona, from Lisbon to Palermo. Dialogue proved to be a crucial path, that needs strong convictions.

And we are dreaming, twenty years after the meeting in Assisi, in 2006, to carry dialogue here, in Washington, as a contribution of Sant-Egidio to peace. Maybe here at Georgetown University.

This world, so fragmented and marked by conflict, needs dialogue. It needs men and women to meet. It needs religions to meet, it needs people to meet, so that they all can learn to live together.

Those environments that are closed to freedom and to the others, those spaces where difference is banned, in here there is the fear of living together with people who are different.

But the future, the true civilization of the future, is the civilization of coexistence. Either we live together or we die together.

It is the civilization of coexistence. This civilization needs dialogue. It is not the civilization of relativism, where everything is interchangeable, where everything is the same and eventually indifferent.

In order to live together we need strong convictions. The Christians of the Twenty-First Century will have to be strong believers, they will have to be profoundly rooted in the Gospel. All believers should be profoundly rooted in their spiritual tradition. Only in this way can they be a leaven for the civilization of coexistence.

Besides, between the Nineteenth Century and the Twentieth Century, while Europeans were fighting each other, the United States has been an example of the civilization of coexistence; it has been a landing place for people who were searching for freedom. And American society is marked by profound religious convictions; but this is no reason for excluding those who have different ideas. The civilization of coexistence needs strong Christians and strong believers.

Take note that when I say strong, I mean true, convinced and humble. It does not mean arrogant. Because arrogance is the sign of weakness of our convictions. Also aggressiveness is a sign of weakness.

John XXIII, who had peace in his heart, was able to speak of peace to the world.

But his miracle can be repeated.

Every one of us can do it.

Peace is a construction.

It is a construction site where everyone can work if they are, as the pope said: “people of good will”.

This is why, confronting the radicalism of many, confronting the hurry and laziness of others, the pope recalls an old law that those who build houses know well: the law of gradual and regular progression. This gradual and regular progression is not giving up, it is on the contrary a daily tenacious battle: “we would remind – he adds – that it is the law of nature that all things must be of gradual growth”. Everybody with tenacity, can work in the construction site of peace.

Peace is built by dialogue. That peace that comes before the conflicts: pre-emptive peace. That peace that ends all conflicts. John XXIII said:

“We are hopeful that, by establishing contact with one another and by a policy of negotiation, nations will come to a better recognition of the natural ties that bind them together as men. We are hopeful, too, that they will come to a fairer realization of one of the cardinal duties deriving from our common nature: namely, that love, not fear, must dominate the relationships between individuals and between nations!”

Yes, looking at the face of the others in dialogue, we discover our true human nature. We are all men and women. This is why — as the great Jewish teacher Hillel taught — “if you find yourself in a situation where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being”.