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Closing ceremony of Thirst for Peace: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue

Closing ceremony of the Inter-religious convocation on Peace, Assisi
“Thirst for Peace: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”
Reflections by Gillian Ahlgren, Professor of Theology, Xavier University
September 20, 2016

At precisely 2:00 pm, the security personnel began admitting participants with passes into the standing room of the upper and lower courtyards surrounding the Basilica of St. Francis.  Although there were 500 people still finishing lunch with Pope Francis in the monastery attached to the basilica, most of us (15,000 of us, in fact) were outside, patiently waiting our opportunity to draw near.  A sense of hope and joy permeated the crowds.  After two days of panels, dialogue, meals, and exchange, there was a tremendous offering of good will rising from our hearts.

At 4:00, after silent prayer at the tomb of St. Francis, the prayer service in the lower basilica began.  One of the most poignant moments was a prayer in which we all repeated a simple sung “Kirie eleison” (“Lord, have mercy”) as the cantor remembered and lifted up all who suffer violence, displacement, fear and terror because of conflict and violence.  Place after place of conflict was remembered and lifted up: Assisi became, once again, a pulsing heart sending a spirit of peace into Aghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Senegal, Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Columbia, the Ukraine, the Philippines, Yemen, Central America, the Holy Land, the list went on and on.  The representatives of major religious traditions processed out into the piazza of the lower basilica at 5:00.  Pope Francis thanked everyone for assembling, saying, “We come to Assisi as pilgrims in search of peace.  We carry within us and lay before God the expectancy and anguish of so many people.  We have a thirst for peace, a desire for peace, and, above all, the need to pray to God for peace, since it is a gift from God that radiates through us and into the world.”

Pope Francis spoke powerfully of the “virus of indifference” that paralyzes us, rendering us insensitive, immobile, and inattentive.  Prayer and the will to collaborate are what bring about a true peace, one that is not abstract or illusory, but expressed tangibly.  Peace expressed through hospitality and openness to dialogue.  Peace that embraces encounter, conversation, and the willing ness to learn from one another.  Peace expressed through collaboration, as we find in one another brothers and sisters with ideas and gifts that lead to a better world.  Peace expressed through education, an education that constantly works toward promoting a culture of genuine encounter with one another, of mutual learning from one another, and of communion, the uniting of our gifts in the our work to affirm and promote the dignity and goodness of one another.

“Everyone can be artisans of peace through the power of prayer and dialogue,” said Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which organized the event in collaboration with the Diocese of Assisi, the Franciscan communities in Assisi, and the support of regional and civil governmental leaders.  “The audacity of peace is prayer and dialogue.”  Quoting Olivier Clément, Riccardi reminded us all that “Dialogue is the key to the planet’s survival, in a world where we have forgotten that war is never a surgically clean solution that allows us to expel evil from the world.  Dialogue reveals that war and misunderstandings are not invincible.”

Bartholomew, Ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, remarked “Our gathering her has given us the chance to look into each other’s eyes, to speak honestly, to listen to one another, to enjoy each other’s riches, and, essentially, to be ‘friends.’  And in this friendship and true unconditional love for each other, our thirst for peace is quenched.  It is quenched because peace is free, profound, and rooted in the heart of every human being, who for believers are made in the image and likeness of God and for cultures and for humanist thinkers are part of the same human family.”  Peace requires cornerstones to uphold it when it is endangered, cornerstones that Patriarch Bartholomew articulated:  “There can be no peace without mutual respect and acknowledgement.  There can be no peace without justice, there can be no peace without fruitful cooperation among all the peoples in the world.”

Patriarch Bartholomew asked all of us, as we return to our homes and communities, to look within and to engage a healthy individual and communal self-criticism.  “We need to ask ourselves where we may have been wrong, or where we have not been careful enough.”  The fundamentalists that have arisen, he said, “threaten not only our dialogue with others, but even dialogue within ourselves and our own consciences.”  Aware of our own shortcomings and striving constantly to improve, we can engage “a dialogue that will become rich and vital, because our cooperation will give us a chance to intervene in history, a chance to write our future together.”

World religious leaders were then ringed by a circle of children who greeted them with laurels of peace and the peace prayer of Assisi.  Representatives of the world’s religious traditions were called forward individually to light candles in a large candelabra and then to sign an accord to work for peace.  Signs of peace were exchanged through the crowds, and we all went forth, committed to breathing the Spirit of Assisi, the spirit of peace into our world.

Copies of participants’ remarks and transcripts of the Conference panels are available at

http://www.santegidio.org/pageID/11712/langID/it/Assisi-2016–Sete-di-Pace.html

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About the author
Gillian Ahlgren
Dr. Ahlgren has been teaching the Christian mystical tradition to college-age students, graduate students, and adult learners for over 26 years. She is an internationally-recognized scholar of the tradition, an experienced spiritual director, and engages a regular practice of contemplative prayer. A popular teacher, public speaker and writer, she also gives several retreats per year. She is the Founding Director of Xavier University’s Institute for Spirituality and Social Justice.