“Depth is a resource of freedom in the face of the arrogant simplifiers of our time, so complex, indeed inexplicable in itself, that simplifications cannot suffice.” - Andrea Riccardi
For 36 years (with a COVID-19 pause), religious leaders from different places and traditions have met at the Annual Gathering for Peace, inspired by the 1986 Assisi meeting led by Pope John Paul II: a long interreligious journey across various, mostly European, cities. Organized by the lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, the program is renowned by participants and observers as a striking and moving event that escapes many of the critiques of interreligious gatherings–that they tend towards blandness and rarely attract much media and other attention, let alone action. Among the reasons are the presence of political and intellectual leaders, a skilled blending of substance and pageant, and the mobilization of the Sant’Egidio Community with its strong mantra of friendship (guests have their own “guardian angel” who guides them through the events) as well as a marked intergenerational presence as many young people participate enthusiastically.
This year, the event took place in Rome from October 23 to 25. It was a spirited gathering, but one shadowed by world events, notably the war in Ukraine, the uncertain exodus from the COVID-19 era, continuing tensions around migration, looming economic troubles, and Italy’s change of government. The program opened with a large plenary session where Italian President Sergio Mattarella and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke, alongside religious leaders and a “witness” from Ukraine. This was followed by 14 panel discussions over a day and a half, each with diverse speakers addressing large audiences that included 1,700 or so high school students from Rome (I moderated one on the “Crisis of Globalization”). The finale, where Pope Francis was the central figure, took place at Rome’s Colosseum, including a prayer for the Christian participants inside the venue and the final, public, interreligious ceremony outside.
“Il Grido della Pace,” the meeting’s theme, in Italian, was translated to English as “The Cry of Peace.” However, the banners and pervasive repetition of the theme suggested (to me) that the translation did not convey the theme’s full sense. That came closer to “scream” or “shout,” rather than “cry,” conveying better a sense of anguish as well as lament. Against the backdrop of constant reminders of religious teachings and yearnings for peace, there was a sense that people and leaders were flummoxed by the intermingled challenges and unsure of paths to solutions today. At least the public sessions were strong on emotional calls, even if less so on practical paths forward. Some of the tone was conveyed by economist Jeff Sachs, who opened with his comments during a panel focused on nuclear threats: “If you are not terrified now, you have not been listening.” Hope rests on what was happening behind the scenes, in private negotiations and planning.
The annual Sant’Egidio gatherings, organized on behalf of the Vatican, have followed a very similar pattern: a large opening assembly with religious and political leaders, a series of overlapping panels, and a final set of separate prayers for different religious communities (symbolizing each tradition’s deep commitment to their faith) followed by a joyful coming together of religious leaders from different traditions in friendship and a public appeal for peace, written on a scroll. The finale normally involves music, strong witness by survivors, intergenerational symbolism, and lighting candles on large candelabras–moving visual and multisensory displays. This year was similar, except that the final event was shorter and soberer with Pope Francis setting the tone. The finale included, as it always has, the testimony of witnesses—this year from Argentina and Nigeria, centered on trafficking and on the challenges of forced migration. A group of children received the appeal from a Holocaust survivor, passing the scrolls to leaders in the audience.
President Macron’s speech (well over 40 minutes long) was especially striking, both in its refreshing candor (he began by noting the irony of a French president leading his country’s support for Ukraine and its commitment to laïcité, speaking of peace to a largely religious audience) and in its strong statement that religious leaders and communities play vital roles, including resistance to bellicose and authoritarian tendencies.
I first attended a Sant’Egidio meeting in Palermo in 2002, the first meeting after the 9/11 attacks, and have returned most years since then. Sant’Egidio terms the events a journey, a Prayer for Peace, and it has indeed been a remarkable journey. Each year’s event has its distinctive flavor, colored by the place and the agenda of the moment. Sant’Egidio’s founder and former president, Andrea Riccardi, is a noted historian, and his annual addresses invariably convey both a prophetic call for justice and a challenge to link teachings to action (his speeches since 2008 are available online). The Sant’Egidio leadership cadre has demonstrated deep involvement in conflict situations, especially in Africa, and the greater Sant’Edgidio Community has championed causes such as high-quality care for HIV/AIDS, work to welcome and integrate refugees, abolition of the death penalty, inclusion through registration and citizenship, and linking religion to political will, rhetoric and action, and compassion and justice.
The anguished “Cry” for peace from Rome, one of a remarkable series of interreligious gatherings in 2022 (see for example a “Dialogue of Declarations”), puts the challenge starkly: the pain and raw danger of violence, injustice, and war and the common, shared appeal of peace. One insight repeated by several speakers emphasized that peace is not a utopian dream but something tangible, the product of compromise, and invariably messy. The prophetic voice of both religious and political leaders as well as those of people embroiled in conflict offer a stark sense of the weight of contemporary crises and the complex ways in which they are interrelated. Alongside that sober conclusion is the example of what is truly the “best of religion,” with some wise leaders open to ideas and deeply committed to act for the most vulnerable, in addition to an indomitable spirit of many, young and old, who come together both to speak truth to the powerful and to demonstrate their faith and hope that despite the daunting challenges, peace and a just social and economic order are within our grasp.