A Discussion with Dominique Peccoud, S.J.
Background: This discussion between Dominique Peccoud and Katherine Marshall took place at Georgetown University on February 3, 2011 and focused on Father Peccoud’s reflections on his work at the ILO and his reflections following his retirement from the ILO after his 12-year term. He explores the unique and historic role of the advisory position he held at the ILO, as a Jesuit within a United Nations institution. He highlights how the significance of decent work, the mantra of the ILO, is linked in many ways to Catholic social thought and teaching. He also reflects on what is unique about the Christian faith, and his thoughts on the significance of religion’s role in giving meaning to his life. In this reflection he explores the significance of relationships among people, the meaning of salvation, and the unique ethics of Christianity, as part of a new appreciation he has gained of the significance of the Trinity.
Interview Conducted on February 23, 2011
What brought you to the ILO in 1997? Was it fortuitous or was it a logical step in your career and that of the Jesuit Order?
It was most definitely not an accident that I, as a French Jesuit, found myself at the ILO. Almost from its origins, from its earliest years, the ILO has had a Jesuit member of the staff, who has always been French (except for one American). So there was a logic and a long history that took me there.
The Jesuit position at the ILO was born through an interesting story. The first Director General of the ILO was Albert Thomas, who was French. He was, like most people in that era, the product of a Catholic culture, but he himself had abandoned his faith. He was passionate about socialism, and indeed had been a member of the first Socialist International at the end of the nineteenth century. The ILO itself also had no specific links with the Catholic Church. It was, rather, very much shaped by two ethical axes that crossed each other in the ILO’s origins: the first one involved the Freemasons and liberal Jews, the second a current that went from Catholics to liberal Protestants; all the four communities had developed major concerns about social justice and the development of the industrialized society from the beginning of the ninetieth century.
At the first International Labor Conference (the annual meeting of the ILO’s general assembly), Albert Thomas was fascinated by fact that the representative of the government of the Netherlands was an ecclesiastic—Msgr. Nolens, the president of the Netherlands Catholic Party. Thomas was struck all the more by the wisdom and insight in what Nolens said. Indeed, of all the many speeches there, it was Msgr. Nolens’ that made the strongest impression on Thomas. At the second International Labor Conference the next year, what Msgr. Nolens said about the social objectives of the ILO again impressed Thomas. As Nolens came down from the podium, Thomas came to greet him and said that it was clearly vital that he, Thomas, go to the Vatican. Nolens thought at first that the comment was a joke. But Albert Thomas was serious and asked to meet Nolens the next day. He reiterated his admiration for his interventions, and said that over the preceding year, he had made a great effort to find and read all the social thinking of the Catholic Church. He appreciated that this social teaching, which at that time had a thirty-year history, represented an impressive development of social doctrine. Thomas had read it carefully and found himself profoundly in agreement with the social approach that he found in the doctrine.
Part of the background was that Thomas was afraid at that time that his agency, the ILO, instead of being an international agency producing international law, would be reduced to the role of simply controlling here and there minimum social standards that each country could adopt, but that it would have no power to produce international legal instruments. He thus asked Nolens how he could get in contact with the Vatican State and the Pope. He saw the potential to breathe a new spirit and direction into the ILO.
Again, the history came into play. This took place at a time not long after the beginning of Russian Revolution, and the Holy See had just made a huge diplomatic error, that of supporting the Russian Revolution against the Tsar. This had boomeranged against the Vatican in force, as the Holy See came to realize how deeply the Russian Revolution was atheist, and had set out to destroy all Christian faith and the Church. Thus Albert Thomas, who had been a member of the first socialist international, was not really a person who could be seen publically and officially to be in contact with the Vatican. Thomas was never officially received by the Pope, but he did meet with him in private. And the two of them reached an agreement, five years later in 1925, that defined a relationship wherein the Holy See would propose to the Director General a senior officer to serve as a special advisor to the ILO for socio-religious affairs. The relationship that was defined then has continued ever since.
I had understood that three candidates were proposed, so that the Director General can select one?
Yes, that is the normal process for such appointments and that is the way it has worked: the Vatican proposes three Jesuits and the Director General makes the selection.
And what about other religions? Was there not a Protestant at the ILO for a time?
Before World War II, the World Council of Churches took shape. It was supposed to play the role of an intermediary for the Protestant churches vis-à-vis the international institutions (comparable to that played by the Catholic Church and the Holy See). The Jesuit who was then at the ILO suggested that a representative of this new body be appointed, and the Director General agreed. But during World War II, the ILO moved to Canada. The Jesuit advisor went to Canada also, but the Protestant representative stayed in Geneva, left the ILO, and his position was abolished. After the war ended, the Jesuit proposed to the Director General that he name a new Protestant (or WCC) representative, but he refused. At that time, the decolonization moment was in full force. Thus the ILO found itself at the juncture of two different forces: on the one hand decolonization and the entrance of a lot of new religious currents (Muslim, Hinduism, Buddhist, etc.) and on the other the Cold War ideological battles of the time. In this environment, the Director General of the ILO refused (as he has ever since) to create any new posts with religious links. His view was that the advisor should bring in people from other faiths or ideologies for specific research projects, should reach out to others, but he saw that seeking representation of all faiths within the ILO itself was impossible.
How many Jesuit advisors have there been? And what directors did you serve with?
I was the seventh Jesuit advisor and served there for 12 years, four years with Michel Hansenne (as Director General), and eight with Juan Somavia.
The two had very different roles. Michel Hansenne faced the difficult challenge of navigating a continuing relevance for the ILO following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The ILO had become a central arena in the final stages of the Cold War, pitting East versus West. With the fall of the Wall, some saw that the ILO had lost its purpose, that it was no longer needed. Hansenne succeeded in showing that it was still relevant, that there were still large areas where action was needed on international law. His major achievement was the “ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up,” which was concluded in 1998. Juan Somavia’s coming was providential for the ILO. It made it possible for all the work that had been done by Hansenne to be packaged and sold well. Somavia has achieved two important things, because at the same time that he drove this “packaging and marketing,” he gave a name to the spirit behind it, in the concept of “decent work.” Thus he has actively continued the efforts of Michel Hansenne. And going further, he went up to the point of the new “Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization” in 2008 that made “decent work” not only an idea, but a reality with a legal framework.
The Encyclical Caritas in Veritate highlights the issues of decent work. Were you involved in making these links?
Yes, but more important the convergence of ideas and their articulation reflect the deep convergence, the resonance between the social doctrine of the Church and the foundational principles and law that underlie the ILO. The influence goes both ways, but to my mind I see a greater weight of influence from the ILO towards the practical issues the Catholic Church deals with in its social doctrine than vice versa. There are active and continuing bilateral relationships between the two.
It is telling that when an ILO colleague read the decent work language in the Encyclical, his comment was “bravo!” and noted that the ideas behind decent work had never been presented in such a lyrical way, with such persuasive force.
Had you been involved in any labor issues before you came to the ILO in 1997?
Indeed I had. Before I came to the ILO, I was at Toulouse (where I spent 13 years). I was the president of the graduate school of agriculture there, and I also had a major involvement in creating and building a school of advanced mechanical engineering and computer science. I found myself very much concerned in Toulouse with issues of unemployment, which was high, at least two percentage points higher than rates in France overall. We set up a Maison des chômeurs, a center for the unemployed, and I was its treasurer. We also helped to establish a national movement of the unemployed and marginal workers. The issue then was that the French unions did not want, at that time, to include them as the TUC did in UK, so they had no representation. I was very passionate about these issues then.
Just at the time I was completing my work in Toulouse, my predecessor at the ILO retired, and I was proposed for the position. I was delighted to accept it, as it reflected a logical progression and an opportunity to work on issues I saw as vital and that fascinated me.
Looking at your career at the ILO, what were some of the high points? How did you come to see the relevance of religion—ideas and institutions—for the work of the ILO?
When I entered the ILO in January 1996, I was struck by the large number of legal instruments (Conventions or recommendations) that were not ratified by many countries. So I developed for myself a geographical information system superimposing, for each instrument, a mapping of the major religions and ideologies and of the status of ratification. And I observed a lot of overlap between non-ratified instruments and religious homogeneities. So, after a month-and-a-half of this reflection, I wanted to find out how we could bring in, before the final version of a legal instrument was adopted, a wording that would not hurt such or such a culture. My question was really how to find out the right way between two foundations of the legal instruments: the utilitarian one, a very effective inductive process coming from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and the value-based one, a culturally rooted deductive one that came mainly from the Latin Judeo-Christian traditions. Instead of viewing them as opposites, they are much more two dialectic modes that both needed to be taken into account in the process of elaborating jurisdictional instruments in a well-organized and effective manner. I have developed that theme more extensively in the foreword of my book on “Philosophical and spiritual perspectives on Decent Work.”
“Decent work” in fact gave me a clear thread that ran through all my work, which involved countless discussions and work with different partners. The consultation, reflected in my book, was perhaps the most explicit effort to elicit the wisdom and ideas of different faiths.
I was throughout that process very much involved as a link to the Vatican bodies, again with a focus on social justice issues. I visited Senegal several times, as part of the government’s effort to build interfaith relations. And I was part of the early discussions that led to the creation of the World Faiths Development Dialogue: fascinating people gathered around key topics!
You retired after 12 years at the ILO in January, 2008. What has been your focus since then?
What was most important for me when I left the ILO is still at the center of my thoughts and work, and has preoccupied me throughout this period. I have wanted to explore and to dig deeper into the question: What is my own faith? And how does that relate to the faith of Christians more broadly? And the deeper I dig, the more relevant I find these questions, about the very meaning of faith, and the significance of belonging to a religion. But I have also come to believe that religion has far less to do with the faith that Christ brought to us than I had earlier understood. For some Christian theologians, the central question is to know more about Christ and his role in Christianity. But I have come to ask whether Christ, through his example of religion as faith, did not in fact come to bring about an end to religion as a powerful necessary institution that links an individual to God.
Why do I suggest this? I think that any and all religions are made up of three distinctive elements. Religion involves first an idea of God, about God. And around this idea of God one can extrapolate a notion of salvation (I will come back to that notion). From this idea of God and the notion of salvation are derived rituals, and an ethic. What seems really interesting to me in these three elements—that is, the idea of God, of salvation, and of an ethic—is that they offer an appropriate vehicle to analyze and explore not only the core of all religions, but also that of all great philosophies that have given a spirit to the world.
The diverse approaches to the Divine, to God, are in fact diverse answers to the question that everybody must ask themselves: Is there a reason, a meaning of life? And if the answers are yes, what are those reasons? So what I wanted to explore was the meaning of my Christian life. And I knew that I needed to answer the central question, and also to explain my suggestion, that I put forward earlier, that my reflection points towards a conclusion that in a sense Christian faith implies the end of religions, perhaps a final convergence. It suggests at a minimum the end of what we know today as formal “religions.”
So first, let’s explore who God is for me. When I ask myself this question, I like to ask it not in the form of a top-down, formal definition of God. I ask myself instead a bottom-up query, truly in the form of a question: looking over my life, what do I see as the most important dimensions? What is my experience of fullness and happiness? And, in contrast, what has given me the greatest pain in my life? What are my positive and negative experiences that were important for uncovering the meaning of my life?
When I ask myself these questions, I can answer without hesitation that my greatest joys have come from successful human relationships. And my greatest pain has come from human relationships that have degenerated, even into violence. That conclusion has struck me forcibly.
As I reflect on what constitutes a positive human relationship, the best example I can point to here is our own relationship, the two of us. I see it as one that is positive, a success. Our relationship began one day many years ago, when I was at the ILO, working on a range of questions around labor and international issues; you were still at the World Bank, focused on a group that Jim Wolfensohn, then the President of the World Bank, had created that was trying to see what links there might be between faith and development. I believe that we met first, at my request, at your office in Washington. We spoke, and already, in that first conversation, there was a fit that arose from two things. The first was that we were both concerned, even preoccupied, by the diversity of religious approaches in the world, and by the positive and negative impacts that this diversity could have. We found a common point of interest, where our activities and the direction our respective work was taking converged. The second thing that I recall from our relationship was that, from the beginning and continuing from there, we found ourselves almost immediately in a relationship that involved creative reasoning with lot of peaceful, even though sometimes difficult, discussions. There was a harmonic resonance.
What do I mean by harmonic resonance? I am a cellist, and my cello hangs on the wall in my room. When I sing in the morning, sometimes the tone makes the strings of the cello vibrate. That is resonance, a harmonic effect that finds a resonance in something else. What do I think makes for such creative resonance? It implies, in our case, that we were in a relationship of mutual confidence, in which there has never been any kind of game, no issue of the power of one of us over the other. You were doing your job at the World Bank, and I mine at the ILO, and we were not seeking anything particular from the other. There was no sense that one of us was in a dominant position over the other. It was a relationship that was reciprocal and mutual. So in this relation, from the start, we were able to establish a working “culture” that drew inspiration from common, shared qualities: our knowledge of the international organizations, our passion and opening to the wonders of the world, our love of travel and the diversity of cultures. Thus we found various fields where there was resonance. And after that first meeting, we found a common desire to do something together.
Thus we observe that there is a third element that I have not mentioned before: a common spirit. Before our first meeting, we simply worked in neighboring fields. But after that first meeting, there was already created, established, something of a common spirit between us. And I can say that, since then, this common spirit has never stopped growing, taking a step with each meeting, but also moved by its own dynamic. The fact is that we have each continued to work independently, in our own fields, but always thinking of and conscious of what the other was doing. So, as I reflect on our relationship, one where for long periods we have had no contact, even so in significant ways that spirit of our continuing relationship has never stopped growing, until today, when you wanted to do this interview, and I to respond. This interview, once it is completed, will be a reflection of the state of our common spirit.
Reflecting still on this challenge of relationships: in any relationship there are at least two people, in this case you and me, and there is a third element, a common spirit, which we can say emerges from you and me, but that also has its own personality, in the sense that it evolves by itself, beyond our meetings and deliberate actions. What I want to say by that is that it has a story, a personality and a capacity of expression. The interview that we are now doing is not only about you or me or even both of us, but something beyond. In that sense you can say that our common spirit is a third factor, with its own personality emerging from and necessary to the relationship both of us are involved in.
Another element in a successful relationship is that I recognize that my personality has been changed by contact with you. And I dare say that you would be ready to say the same thing from your side. We can see that from the fact that we are not protecting ourselves from the other, when getting in relation to each other. In another sense, I am ready to receive something from you and you are ready also to receive something yourself, from me as a person. It is in this sense that I can say that I perceive myself as inspired (engendered) by you; you have given something to me, by believing in me as a person, and because also you are open yourself to be inspired by me. We are thus in a reciprocal relationship, in which we are inspired one by the other and in which a common spirit proceeds, from you and from me.
Now, reaching this point, I note that this is exactly where earlier thinkers found themselves as they formulated the Nicene-Constantinople Creed that is to this day spoken by Christians everywhere. In the Creed, we say that the Father begets the Son, that the Son is begotten (engendered) by the Father, and that from both of them emerges, in an organic way (proceeds), a spirit that has its own, distinct, personality.
This is the way that I understand the experience of a creative relationship. All the happiest experiences of my life have been like this. Thus, from the depths of my heart and perceptive experiences and looking to the very meaning of human existence and that of the universe, I can truly say that the elements through which an individual weaves a fabric of his life involve an increasingly complex web of relationships that leads us to what we are and become. From that conclusion, I find a complete resonance between the revelation that Christ brings through the example of his life, his absolute confidence in his Father, and thus the creation of a Spirit that radiates through all humanity and the universe. And for me, I thus recognize in a sense the God that Jesus Christ reveals to me as the One that coincides, or resonates with the greatest moments of happiness in my life. That is why all my efforts at present are going towards reflecting on this mystery of the perfect love of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit, as being my God.
But you see well that around this, the Father is not God for me in isolation, in himself. He is God insofar that he is in relation to the Son in the Holy Spirit. The Son, revealed in Jesus Christ, is not God for me in himself. He is God insofar that he is in relation with the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not God for me in himself. He is God insofar that he is the personal go-between enabling and enriching himself from the relation between the Father and the Son. I recognize the common Spirit of the Father and Son that radiates through all creation, from Father and Son. And that is exactly what we say in the Nicene Creed. The great misfortune is that for many this Creed seems like an abstraction, and not an expression of the most essential of what human relationships, when they are successful, involve, and, in logical contrast, what they signify when they fail.
This is the way I have come to answer that fundamental question, what does “God” mean for me?
Moving on to my second field of reflection. Once I have established how I understand God, the next question is: what is salvation? This question follows logically because I do not experience life solely through a relationship with God and with others, in human relationships. Not all relationships are like the one I described, between you and me. I have known the painful experience of failed relationships. Like all human relationships that fail, this can lead to the catastrophes of hatred, jealousy, of bitterness, calumny, and all the sorts of things that one can experience in life. Thus I have had to ask myself where these failed relationships come from? What do they mean?
They come because, like all other human beings, I experience fear, and what I term “panic fear”, fear at its deepest and darkest. Many thinkers have suggested that fear and especially this deep fear represents fear of death. I am not convinced that this is true. Some people live their lives with no way of imagining their death; it barely crosses through their thoughts. Others see death as a happy threshold to a wonderful future. Yet they still experience fear. Where does it come from and what it is made up of? By chance I found the best description I have ever encountered just yesterday morning, in a novel of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, titled Ulysses from Bagdad. It comes at the beginning of Chapter 13. In a page and a half he gives a magnificent description of the fear that can grip us all, and, as a consequence or an illustration of that fear, he highlights the special, particular fear people today have of immigrants.
What he expresses so well is this: he says that the fear that we all experience is tied to the impression we often have that we were born simply because of a series of chance events that makes our life seem like a kind of lottery. This lottery has its good side, in luck, and its bad side in the experiences of misfortune. I, for example, was born in France in the middle of the 20th century. But I could just as easily have been born like the hero in Schmitt’s novel, in Baghdad at the time of Saddam Hussein. I inherited not only the genes of my parents but also a culture, a way of thinking, a religious education, through which, at one stage of my journey, I found my understanding of the Trinity. I could as easily have been born in another culture, and inherited another ideology. From time to time, even if in brief moments, we measure and grasp how far our own personality is made up by chance, and how far it has an extreme fragility. We experience the vertigo of this sense that we are born from and for nothing. We can experience it either individually or collectively. The human species finds itself on a planet that is so small, lost in a solar system that is so vast, and that system itself within a galaxy that extends far beyond it. And that galaxy is just one of many in the universe. I must count, take the measure of my own insignificance, my nothingness. At the same time that I can experience a real sense of fulfillment, as I do now, I can be aware of this sense of being a tiny and insignificant element in this vast system.
Thus our fundamental fear arises from the kind of vertigo that we sense when we confront the nothingness and insignificance that we seem to be. In that context, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt highlights how and why immigrants are for us the type of human being that we find most intolerable. Why? It is true that for the most part an immigrant is someone who is very courageous: he or she has an extraordinary capacity to take blows, to deal with harsh circumstances and events. Yet he or she is capable of hope, the hope of sharing my conditions of life. When we appreciate what it takes them to come to our shores, the precariousness of their situation, their jealousy for my life is for me unbearable. I can be confronted by the vertigo that I described, the sheer luck and fortune that makes me what I am and you what you are and that has made that immigrant what he is and where he is. That can put me before this “panic fear” of my insignificance, my emptiness, my immense fragility of being what I am by a pure stroke of luck. We try to avoid that difficult experience by creating pseudo values that we term values: values that seek to defend and protect people from my culture, my religion, my ethnic origin, my academic records, my job... We put these forward as ultimate values to reassure ourselves and to make us believe in ourselves. They serve to reassure me, to make me believe that in fact I was born and raised in a context that is indeed solid and valid. I solve the problem of my panic fear by surrounding myself by a set of manufactured values that seem to me like a safety net, a life vest in relation to the emptiness I feel in the face of my very existence.
Thus I have come to understand that happy and successful relationships are born when there is no fear. Returning to our own case, you have never been afraid of me, nor I of you. But an unhappy relationship is always possible when part of the relationship has some element of this panic fear, meaning that the person puts themselves in a position of defending themselves, or of defiance in relation to the other partner in the relationship. What breaks or undermines a successful human relationship is when confidence is broken and fear is activated. Then we act to create a seawall, a barrier to protect ourselves so that the other does not intervene or threaten my own life. This is the situation from which I want to be saved.
So to summarize, for me, salvation is related to being able to master that fear of being nothing, by becoming more and more aware of being nothing by myself, and at the same time being capable of receiving fully my identity, my being from others, enjoying the very fact that I owe my whole being to others I happen to find myself in relation to. It’s the way to discover the absolutely Other (with a large O), the One whom Jesus Christ calls “his Father” and teaches us to call, in communion with him in the Holy Spirit, “Our Father”...
What is interesting here is that when the Son in the Trinity becomes a man, he himself goes through moments of panic fear. He does not avoid it, does not spare himself the pain in any way. It is remarkable that from the beginning to the end of his human life, Jesus is in situations of extreme insecurity, of fragility. His parents at his very birth had to travel to respond to a government ordered census, far from their home. He had parents who were not rich, who went to the temple of Jerusalem to make the sacrifice that poor people then made for a first son: a dove. In everything that the Apostles tell, it is clear that Jesus goes to the profoundest depths of his own experience of insecurity, of emptiness, and that this very emptiness allows him to aspire, or to allow himself to aspire, to connect with the Father in whom he places all his confidence. And the place where we see this with the greatest intensity is in the events that take place between the Thursday in the evening and the Friday afternoon of his death. It shows the extraordinary degree to which he goes through the depths of fear. Matthew says it very explicitly, as he describes Jesus’ agony, taken as it was to the very limits. We get the full sense of the physical violence against him, the moral violence, and the violence of words. Jesus has the experience of feeling that his life is meaningless, an experience close to atheism, where life had absolutely no meaning and there was no God for him.
I remember the title of a presentation that I heard 45 years ago when I was at the novitiate of the Jesuits, given by the representative of the Patriarch of Moscow: “the Atheism of Christ at Gethsemane.” He was determined to show how Christ at that time saw his life as a complete failure. He wanted to liberate his Jewish community, we could say his Church, from the religious power of the priests, of the Pharisees and the doctors of law, to allow those who shared his faith to discover themselves what it meant to have faith in his Father, a faith that has nothing to do with any explicit act of religion. He failed completely doing it, and because of this he was clearly put to his death: Christ died because of his anticlericalism.
Jesus chose his disciples, and there was one he loved more than the others and he showed his preference, during the Last Supper: to Judas, the one who was to betray him. All the disciples left, apart from the three of them who went with him to walk on Mount Tabor and had the experience of what we call his transfiguration. They come with him to the Mount of Olives, to Gethsemane, but they sleep deeply during his agony. And the one Jesus had chosen to be able to reaffirm his brothers in their faith, Peter, will soon betray him. Jesus had failed in everything.
Yet there, I believe, is where an extraordinary transformation happens. Jesus takes precisely this experience of total emptiness, of a total lack of meaning in his life, to express his absolute confidence in his Father. He does not know or understand at all where his path then will lead, whenever he knows that he is near death. He is able to say to his father, “O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me”. But then, with total confidence, he says, “Yet not as I will, but as You will” (Mt 26:39). He puts himself, with total absolute love and acceptance, into a position of passivity, into the hands of Him from whom he takes all his being. Going even deeper to an absolute solidarity with the humankind and its salvation, forgetting totally about his own fate, he addresses his Father in a second prayer: “My Father, if this cup may not pass away from me unless I drink it, Your will be done” (Mt 26:42). And, after a third prayer “saying the same word” (Mt 26:44), he seems to be resurrected, surging out of his agony, waking up his disciples sharing with them that they are saved and taking their lead to his Passion, addressing them with a strange order: “Sleep on now and take your rest. Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going: behold, he who is betraying me is at hand” (Mt 26:45-46). Isn’t it remarkable enough that Mathew uses here the Greek word “rise” that is used for the resurrection of Christ, after his death? It is that very part of the Gospel which helps me to deepen the mystery of life, as something that is given and received freely, in a fully confident relationship to the One I can also address myself as Our Father, to the others, my brothers and sisters, from whom I receive the best of my life, be it in confident, resonant relationships or in aggressive, violent ones that I have to be confronted with in the same way Jesus had to be. The first kind of relations makes me feel and understand the mystery of creation; the second one the mystery of a kind of violent death given to me by somebody being for a while an enemy, before another time comes where our relationship is transformed to a brotherly one when a grace of forgiveness is given to both of us from Our Father, leading both of us to a kind of resurrection where we can again become creative in a mutually confident and resonant relationship.
The salvation to which I aspire is to be more and more in communion with Jesus Christ of Nazareth as I discover him in the Scriptures, and as I experience him every day beside me. Just as He promises at the last verse of the Gospel according to Matthew: “Behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the World” (Mt 28:20). Before I came here this morning, I went as I do every day, as a poor soul, to receive the body of Christ at the mass at the cathedral at eight o’clock. To me, that illustrates again that the salvation I am waiting for is about being more and more in communion with the Son, in the knowledge of our Father, both, in whom I can have absolute confidence. And to share their Spirit who becomes the spirit of my relationship with my Father, the same that links the Son to the Father. And that is the same Spirit that binds us in a creative relationship. Thus, the essence of salvation is not to adore an extremely powerful intimidating God from outside, it is to be in God, to breathe more and more in the Trinity, in an atmosphere of perfectly resonant love.
Then to come to my third area of focus, my third point: religion as ethics. It must and does follow from the first two points. The Christian faith has one commandment, and really only one, that is unique and original to Christianity. When I ask even my Christian fellows what is that original commandment, 99.9-percent of them answer: “Love your neighbor as yourself”: that is important but it is not original. It is a common teaching that is present in all religions and philosophies, and indeed that links them all under the name of the Golden Rule. But the unique, different commandment of the Christian ethic is the following: that we must love our enemies, we must pray for those who persecute us, and bless those who curse us. This, as I said, is what I see as the commandment of Christianity alone. And it is what I have to try to live daily, as well as the golden rule that all religions share.
This ethical commandment to love our enemies seems to me a litmus test of whether or not you are a Christian. Why? If one is a Christian, one recognizes that the fragility that is in him, this fear that I described, is common to us all: fragility and fear of violence. But in the end there are two paths open to us to address this fear. The first is to oppose violence, setting up the kind of defense that I described before, around identity and one’s uniqueness. This defense can lead to a still greater violence that can turn against us. In any case, it means rejecting many relationships with others, putting up barriers to such relationships. It is what I term the defensive element of active violence. Another way, the path of passive violence, is to be willing to accept blows that are hurled at me. In many respects I would say I share the view of a Mahatma Gandhi, who understood well the value of passive violence.
But where Christ shows the way went much further. Instead of putting yourself in a situation of indifference to the one who attacks or assaults me, Christ demands that I love him, pray for him, bless him, and want good things for him. This is the expression of a faith in the fact that all of us are saved. The salvation that I described, we are all called to it. We all have a part in this salvation. Thus what we seek is not non-violence, but almost a counter violence of love, where I am asked to embrace the other as my brother or sister because they are called to the same salvation as I am and which we will all share. This is what I find to be the original and central message of Christ.
This line of reflection is what I have dedicated my time to since I retired. This is the path of action a generation of Christian saints called the martyrs (which means “witnesses” in Greek) have followed and still follow today: they are the living witnesses of their absolute faith in their Father, in communion with Christ in the Holy Spirit, of persons living already, now and there, as saved human being In the Holy Trinity. It’s a matter of love, not of practicing compulsory religious rituals, not a matter of religion. It’s why I hold the Christian faith as a remedy against any religious fundamentalism: those are always exclusive human groups who not believe in a universal salvation for all. Among those I unfortunately have to count groups of conservative Catholics who press the Church to go back to the times before Vatican II Council. I fight their positions, but I try to do my best to love them, to pray for them, to bless them, to understand them.