The Community of Sant’Egidio has kept alive the “Spirit of the Day of Prayer and Fast for Peace” for the last thirty years. This initiative came from St John Paul II, who declared that at the root of peace must be prayer, and that’s why he invited leaders of various religions to Assisi on 27 October 1986 to pray for peace.
Assisi today has once again become the ‘heart” of a vast multitude of people calling for peace. Since all of humanity is affected by the lack of peace, it is necessary that the whole world gets involved with combined efforts to establish God’s gift of peace in the hearts of everyone throughout the world.
Humanity is always in need of peace, but do we not feel that it is more in need now than ever?
Those present for this day thirty years ago will remember the unforgettable words of St John Paul II: “The coming together of so many religious leaders to pray is in itself an invitation today to the world to become aware that there exists another dimension of peace and another way of promoting it which is not a result of negotiations, political compromises or economic bargains. It is the result of prayer, which in the diversity of religions, expresses a relationship with a supreme power that surpasses our human capacities alone.”
The movement of prayer for peace is intended to reach beyond borders of nations, in order to meet the believers of all religions and embrace the wide world. This worldwide movement began in Assisi which is known in history also for the centrality given to prayer by St. Francis who incarnated the truth of the Beatitude of Jesus Christ: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God” (Mt 5:9).
It is for this reason, I believe, Sant’Egidio thought of coming back to Assisi after thirty years. It is wonderful to be together to pray. This way we highlight the fraternity and communion among people without barriers and avoid the insidiousness of syncretism and indifferentism, especially in the eyes of the general public which is often so poorly informed about religious questions.
This way we bring out the common elements and positive values of all religions. Each one should be faithful to his or her belief. A healthy plurality will not harm fidelity to one’s own identity. Peace is a superhuman gift. Prayer has to be at the centre when we want to build peace in society and in the world.
Together we beg for peace, one with all, one for all, all for the whole of humanity.
“For every religious person and believer, prayer is the most authentic way of attaining a relationship with God according to one’s own faith. It is this universal and qualified phenomenon in a believer’s life which justifies…to be together to pray (for peace), to place each and every one in God’s presence thereby stressing, in a religious gathering, the universal dimension, the common vocation of humanity to union with God which is the highest reason for human dignity.”
“To be together to give witness before the world to the value of prayer, present in all religions, which ‘carry within them the echo of thousands of years of searching for God…These religions have taught generations of people how to pray.” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 53).
There is an urgent need today that believers of various religions keep on meeting. These meetings should multiply. They are good news among the much publicized bad news in the media today.
But these meetings must be on a deeper level. Prayer becomes the privileged way of encountering other believers because it places religious persons in the truth before God, the essential condition for all to be together, one before the other, in the truth of each one’s own faith and conscience.
The genuine impulse to pray does not lead to opposition and still less to disdain of others, but rather to constructive dialogue in which, each one, without relativism or syncretism of any kind, becomes more deeply aware of the duty to bear witness and to proclaim.
Let us not forget that prayer never divides but unites hearts of people and plants in the praying heart of men and women a determining element for an efficient pedagogy of peace, founded on genuine friendship, reciprocal respect for one another and constructive dialogue among people of different cultures and various religious traditions.
Lack of humility gives way to pride and pride is at the root of domination, hatred and belligerent ideas. Genuine experience of prayer, in all religions, has accents of deep humility, a search for the truth, openness to mystery and an initial response to one’s intuition of God’s will. Thus, it is in prayer that we gain better understanding of the other, in the greatest respect, in benevolence and love which are often conditions or fruits of prayer in all the major religions.
Humility also paves a way to courage which is so essential for building peace across all sorts of boundaries. In prayer one reaffirms that in God we find preeminently the union of justice and mercy. God is supremely faithful to himself and to man, even when people wander far from him. That is why religions are at the service of peace.
Commitment to peace without prayer can be a very superficial act; in fact, history has always known men and women who, precisely because they are believers, have distinguished themselves as witnesses to peace.
By their example, they teach us that it is possible to build bridges between individuals and peoples that lead us to come together and walk with one another on the paths of peace. We look to them in order to draw inspiration for our commitment in the service of humanity. They encourage us to hope that there will be no lack of men and women of peace, capable of irradiating in the world the light of love and hope.
If peace is God’s gift and has its source in Him, where are we to seek it and how can we build it, if not in a deep and intimate relationship with God? To build the order of peace, justice and freedom requires, therefore, a priority commitment to prayer, which is openness, listening, dialogue, and finally union with God, the prime wellspring of true peace.
As the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue once put it, “To pray is not to escape from history and the problems which it presents. On the contrary, it is to choose to face reality not on our own, but with the strength that comes from on high, strength of truth and love which have their ultimate source in God.”
“Faced with the treachery of evil, religious people can count on God, who absolutely wills what is good. They can pray to him to have the courage to face even the greatest difficulties with a sense of personal responsibility, never yielding to fatalism or impulsive reactions.”
Let us not delude ourselves; let us be vigilant. Because, the gift of peace always remains fragile. At every moment, every day, it needs to be built and strengthened with a renewed resolution. How can we ignore the importance of ‘unceasing’ prayer in this continuous process?
Fear in people has surrounded the edifice of peace. From all directions we keep on hearing threats as if to break and destroy this precious yet fragile vessel of peace. Women and men of prayer in different religious traditions seem to proclaim in season and out of season that prayer is the key to drive away fear.
It is in prayer they discover that the edifice of peace is firmly established on the sure foundation, namely, God: genuine prayer, humble prayer, prayer offered with total confidence in the mercy of God. That is the way to preserve the gift of peace that a forgiving and compassionate God has given us.
Archbishop Felix Machado of Vasai, India, is a former official of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue who helped organize St. Pope John Paul II’s interfaith summit in Assisi in 2002.