Listen to this story:
ROME – After 16 years, German chancellor Angela Merkel will be stepping down before the end of the year. But before leaving office, she will join with Pope Francis to close an Oct. 7 interreligious and cultural encounter.
Organized by the community of Sant’Egidio, the 35th encounter in the “spirit of Assisi” will take place Oct. 6-7 under the theme of “Brothers and Sisters, Future Earth. Religions and Cultures in Dialogue” and will include a wide array of VIPs, including the grand Imam of Al-Azhar university, Ahmed Al Tayyeb; the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew I; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; and the President of the European Rabbis, Pinchas Goldschmidt.
According to the organizers, Merkel will take part in the closing of the summit as the “witness of a European leader that knew how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with one of the foundational pillars of the European Union, that of solidarity.”
It’s their personal investment in the European Union that helped forge a friendship of sorts between the German leader and the Argentine pontiff, who met several times in person at the Vatican, including in 2016, when Francis broke a self-imposed ban on honorary recognitions and awards to receive the Charlemagne Prize, awarded each year to individuals or institutions for their service to European unification.
In May of last year, the two leaders spoke on the phone to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to help the world’s poorest nations face the global crisis.
But their relationship was not without its hurdles: In 2016, during an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the pontiff revealed that in 2014 he had received an “angry phone call” from Merkel, after he had referred to Europe as “a grandmother”, “haggard” and “no longer fertile” during a speech to the European Parliament.
“She was a bit angry because I had compared Europe to a barren woman, incapable of producing children,” Francis said. “She asked me if I really thought Europe could no longer make children.”
“I told her yes it can, and many, because Europe has strong and deep roots,” he said, adding that “in the darkest moments it has always shown itself to have unexpected resources.”
Also on the list for next-week’s high-level event are several other political and religious leaders, including from the Buddhist and Hindu faiths, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tanzania, Liberata Mulamula.
Organizers say the event is in the “spirit of Assisi,” meaning following the premise of the historic event organized by Pope John Paul II in 1986, when various religious communities prayed in different places at the same time, affirming that peace is at the heart of every religious tradition.
As Marco Impagliazzo, president of the Community of Sant’Egidio, said during a press conference in Rome on Monday, at the core of this is the effort to turn war into “an obsolete instrument to be overcome.”
“Today, the world has changed from what it was during that first meeting, still wrapped in the Cold War,” he said. “But the theme of peace and dialogue continue to be the pillars of these meetings. It’s an encounter that not only hears the call for peace that comes from so many places, but also a moment of encounter for these friends of peace.”
To build long-lasting peace, Impagliazzo said, dialogue is necessary, as are solidarity, encounter, and the end of the weapons trade.
“We would like to open a perspective to look together at the world coming out of the pandemic,” said Impagliazzo, noting that the meeting will be attended not only by religious leaders, but also personalities of culture and politics from 40 countries around the world. “There is a need to meet in person under the banner of dialogue between the leaders of different religions to look to the future, but also to listen together to the cry of the least to understand the true state of the world.”
The themes of universal brotherhood and care for the environment emerge clearly as a common concern of all religions, he said, as does the post-pandemic world.
The meeting will be attended by people of all ages, including high school and university students and hundreds of young people from all over Europe: “It is not only a matter of listening to the thirst for peace, which rises from so many countries at war, but also of encouraging the peacemakers scattered throughout the world, to work together to overcome war.”