Every year, 30 times now since Pope John Paul II brought religious leaders together in Assisi in 1986 , the lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio organizes an ambitious meeting that they call a prayer, or a pilgrimage, for peace. The meetings draw a cadre of recognized world religious leaders: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Shinto, Buddhist, and so on. World political leaders also attend. The meetings combine a never-ceasing flow of inspirational and aspirational words, warm and symbolic hugs among different leaders, some intellectual challenges and grist, moving personal witness, countless back channel efforts to address bitter conflicts, and pageantry: there is music and large candelabras that travel from place to place. This is a phenomenal organizational effort by a unique group that is deeply Italian in origin and verve but truly global in its reach and vision. Literally thousands of volunteers care for each invited guest, translate the events into at least six languages, smile when it rains, and facilitate networking by bringing people together.
The Community of Sant’Egidio’s emphatic linking of peace and development, in their ethos and in the patient and persistent work that its 70,000 members do, is inspiring. They are ardent and active negotiators, work with migrants along the long and dangerous routes they travel, work with the sick, the elderly, and the disabled, and advocate, passionately and persistently, for action. This spirit marks the annual interreligious events so that they stand out in the complex and crowded field, where cynicism too often blurs the the vitality and complexity of religious traditions across the world and their real responsibility and potential for action.
The Sant’Egidio meetings take place in a different city each year, and the themes and flavor vary, but there is a common spirit. Still more important the annual rhythm means that many participants know each other and find ways to collaborate. This year’s September 12-14 meeting was in Münster and Osnabrück, Germany, where the famous treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, marking the end of the bitter 30 years war that, some recounted, killed 30 to 40 percent of the population in a wide area. In the heart of Europe, European themes resounded, with a constant focus on the issues of refugees and migrants. The bleak international landscape of conflict and populism, doubts about political leaders and institutions, and horrible conflicts, was never far away.
This is always a quite European event despite participants from all over the world. This year the void of American presence was striking. There were a few American stalwarts: Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University gave a stirring speech demanding action especially on the environment and on corrupt political leadership. But doubts about America’s leadership and capacity to address global issues were never far from the surface.
An interesting exception was the frequent invocation of a Marshall Plan for Africa. This call was part of the German G20 agenda, despite some grumbles about focusing on the comparison. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who came to Münster and delivered a long, carefully crafted speech at the height of an election campaign, emphasized the call for a Marshall Plan approach as did others. What the call meant was not always clear: large sums of money? Generosity? Focus on production? Even so the essence of the demand is a response that is commensurate to the need, a focus on rebuilding, and bold, courageous, and generous action.
The Sant’Egidio meetings always come in three parts: an inspiring opening with a long succession of speeches by political and religious leaders, a rich array of panels with often provocative titles (”War is always a ‘Useless Massacre’”, for example), and a final highly symbolic pageant that concludes with lighting of a candelabra and handing scrolls with a declaration for peace to children, to pass on to world leaders.
The opening ceremony this year featured Angela Merkel’s speech, the President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, the Grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Muhammad Al-Tayyeb, and many others. Pope Francis’ message and that of many others focused on the migrant crisis and on the urgency of addressing both conflicts and poverty and inequality. The panel discussions included gems among many speeches, though with 24 different events in a day and a half the essence is hard to distill. Combatting extremism was an important theme as was the challenge of migration (Sant’Egidio promotes an approach termed humanitarian corridors, that aims to bring refugees legally and focus on integration). The complex links between poverty, popular anger, and extremism was a common theme as was, often repeated, the priority of education.
The final ceremony has a core message: each religious community worships separately, emphasizing the integrity and deepening of each faith. Then the communities meet, moving in procession to a common platform where there is witness to the pain of conflict and a common call for peace. The clouds in Osnabrück this year were chancy and it poured during the worship service. But the skies cleared just in time, with a glorious rainbow and the final ceremony took place in a glowing evening light.
A well kept secret each year is where the next meeting will take place, announced as part of the finale. So, next year, Bologna!