A year ago our Holy Father Pope Benedict made a pilgrimage to Assisi to welcome guests from all over the world to pray together for peace. Together they marked the 25th anniversary of a similar pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Francis, which had been led by Blessed Pope John Paul II.
In Assisi, Pope Benedict contrasted the state of the world a quarter-century ago with the state of the world today. The great threat of violence between the world’s nuclear super-powers, which hung like a cloud over the 1980’s, had vanished without further bloodshed, God be praised. But violence still threatens us as much as ever, and the Pope cannily explained the two-fold source of this threat.
On the one hand, terrorism in the name of religion respects no standards of human decency. When man serves a false image of God—an impure conception born of willfulness and self-centeredness—then the “believer” admits no checks on his misplaced zeal. Must innocents die to the glory of this supposed god? So be it. No human considerations can bind me, because my violent acts are guided by the so-called divine will.
On the other hand, the oppressively atheistic modern state likewise does violence because it holds itself above the basic principles of human decency. The fundamental dignity of man vanishes when we ignore the Creator and provident Lord of the human race. The only moral criteria that remain come solely from what the powerful regard as expedient.
The Nazis, bowing to no god but German-ness, concluded that the Final Solution served the purpose. And now that Roe v. Wade has gotten our rosaries off the ovaries of the supposedly “liberated” woman, the life of the unborn child no longer stands in the way of anyone fulfilling their personal goals.
The two basic sources of human violence in the world, then, have this in common: “No one measures my actions but me.” The utter loneliness of such a state of mind terrifies. Where could happiness and consolation ever come from, if this were true—if there really were no higher judge and planner of history than me?
In Assisi eight centuries ago, the humble holy man spent every day of his life doing penance for his sins and cultivating his friendship with the Almighty Prince of Peace, the Crucified. I think we can safely say that St. Francis lived whole decades without letting a single minute pass in which he did not think of God and God’s will for his life.
At Assisi last year, what did the Pope say we need to do?
It is the task of all who bear responsibility for the Christian faith to purify the religion of Christians again and again, from the faith’s very heart, so that the Christian faith truly serves as an instrument for peace in the world, despite our human fallibility.
I don’t know about you, but I felt a certain pride in being Catholic last month. Violence erupted in North Africa, the various powers-that-be spewed stilted self-serving rhetoric, and the Pope quietly went to Lebanon with no thought for his own personal safety. He gently brought people together to pray and talk to each other, addressing the threats to peace from a genuinely unbiased point-of-view.
St. Francis, too, tried to conquer the threat of violence by crossing the Mediterranean and stepping into the Muslim world without a weapon. The Egyptian sultan, humbly obeying the laws of human decency, never laid a hand on the peaceful friar. He treated Francis and his companions with kindness, and then allowed the gospel-preachers to go home again in peace.
Let’s do what the Pope has urged us to do. Let’s purify our religion by continually seeking the heart of the Christian faith. When we do, we always find hope for a more peaceful world.