Together we are more than what each of us, individually, can be. Representatives of the world's religious traditions collectively lit a candelabra reminding us of this truth. As we face problems that often overwhelm us with their complexity, it is good to remember that we do not have to solve them alone. We can seek out others of good will and work together.
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
From the Lyrick Theatre in the valley outside Assisi
Glass windows to my right provide a majestic view of the hillside city of Assisi. The Rocca Maggiore towers above us, and the graceful arches of the basilica and monastery complex of San Francesco extend as a kind of bridge. There are 5000 of us gathered from scattered nations, united by our "thirst for peace." People from all walks of life, many of us well-placed professionals. We are the overflow.
The rest of the crowd, another 10,000, are gathered in the auditorium, where a distinguished panel inaugurates the most recent dialogue for peace involving world religious leaders, state officials and professionals from many countries. The result is not entirely a prayer, in the traditional sense, but a dialogue of heartfelt speaking and intense listening--what this conferences hopes to model for the planet.
Hilde Kieboom, Vice President of the Sant'Egidio community, chaired the panel, which included remarks by Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant'Egidio community; Bartholomew, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople; Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman; Faustin-Archange Touadéra, president of the Republic of Central Africa; Baleka Mbete, chairperson of the National Assembly of the Republic of South Africa; Dominique Lebrun, archbishop of Rouen; Avraham Steinberg, rabbi from Israel; Mohammad Sammak, political advisor to the Grand Mufti of Lebanon and others.
In the midst of the remarks, Ms. Kieboom called our attention outdoors: above our earnest conversation, an exquisite rainbow had settled over the valley, and we fell silent for a moment, watching its color illuminate the gray clouds behind.
The presenters' speeches are available at
Gillian Ahlgren attends World Religious Leaders summit on Global Peace and Dialogue in Assisi (September 2016).
I am sending this brief dispatch from here in Assisi, where I have come, along with thousands of others, for "Thirst for Peace," an international meeting of religious leaders and faithful. 30 years after the gathering convened by John Paul II in 1986, we live in a very different world, yet one in which, as the French say, "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." The more things change, the more they stay the same... The thirst and quest for peace goes on, perhaps with more intensity than ever. It is a deep blessing to be here, nameless among the crowds, standing with hope and fidelity and calm strength, gathered in a common prayer that transcends language, nation, and denomination and now seeks to find deeper expression in our common humanity.
I arrived yesterday on a train packed full of people from all over the world. Although some of us had no language in common, we could all smile and say "Assisi." The streets here are full of some of the most precious of human feelings: hope, commitment, fidelity, even perplexity, as we look out on a world caught up in a spiral of violence and want, deeply, to create something more.
I woke and went to mass, surrounded again by people from more countries than I could name, and then sat down over lunch to the news of so much terror unleashed all around. As we look ahead to the inauguration of the conference in a few hours, I ask you to be in solidarity with us as we gather, speak, listen, and pray. May all of our prayers and works unite ever more effectively as we try to foster and integrate wisdom, understanding, love, and action in a world that needs us so.
I hope, upon my return, that we can work together with even greater effectiveness, to bring about the kind of world where we can live as one people, stronger than anything that might divide us, and model the solidarity and communion that brings life, joy, and new possibilities.