at the side event entitled:
Be Peace: Pathways Toward a Culture of Peace
New York, 27 September 2019
Today’s 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks is a stark reminder why we must never stop insisting on the inestimable value of peace, and a tragic demonstration that we have not done enough to build a culture of peace and a civilization of mutual respect. Today we remember and pray for those who lost their lives in the attacks and for their families who continue to mourn their loss.
Both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis visited Ground Zero, the former in 2008 and the latter in 2015. I was privileged to have been in New York during both visits, during which each of them said prayers in an interreligious setting. Pope Benedict XVI recited his prayer in what was then just a huge hole, before the 9/11 Memorial and the surrounding towers were constructed. He said in one section of the prayer:
“God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world: peace in the hearts of all men and women and peace among the nations of the earth. Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred. … Comfort and console us, strengthen us in hope, and give us the wisdom and courage to work tirelessly for a world where true peace and love reign among nations and in the hearts of all.”
Pope Francis presided over a moving interreligous gathering in the lowest level of the 9/11 Memorial, in which all the faith communities in the New York area were represented. He started his reflection with these words:
“I feel many different emotions standing here at Ground Zero, where thousands of lives were taken in a senseless act of destruction. Here grief is palpable. The water we see flowing towards that empty pit reminds us of all those lives which fell prey to those who think that destruction, tearing down, is the only way to settle conflicts. It is the silent cry of those who were victims of a mindset that knows only violence, hatred and revenge. A mindset that can only cause pain, suffering, destruction and tears.”
He also referred to the loved ones of the victims, saying,
“At the same time, [the] family members [of the victims] showed me the other face of this attack, the other face of their grief: the power of love and remembrance, a remembrance that does not leave us empty and withdrawn. The names of so many loved ones are written around the towers’ footprints. We can see them, we can touch them, and we can never forget them.”
The 9/11 attacks were preceded and followed by many horrendous acts of violence, proving that violence begets more violence, hatred begets more hatred, and revenge perpetuates the cycle of violence.
There must be a way to stop the cycle of violence, restore the rule of law and build peaceful societies. We have institutions to govern us and implement the law. But they are never enough to stop violence, much less to build a culture of peace. We have Treaties and Conventions on human rights to oblige us to respect the rights of others. We have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, resolutions and political declarations to educate us about human dignity and urge us to build a culture of peace. But they have not been and are not enough to stop violence and restore harmony.
The cradle of a culture of peace runs through the human heart. The Prophet Jeremiah once wondered whether the human heart is too sick to be healed (Jer. 17:9). But it can and must be healed. Its healing is the secret of the path to peace.
There are so many means of destruction and instruments of violence readily available, easily usable and continuously perfected. They can kill all of us many times over. And others, more powerful still, are each day being invented.
To render these instruments of death and destruction useless and, should I say, ridiculous, we need a peaceful heart; a heart that hates war and loves peace; a heart that can lead us to achieve Isaiah’s prophecy, etched on a UN monument a few meters from here, and move the peoples of the world to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” so that they may never again “lift up sword” against one another, nor “shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4). We need a heart that twists and silences guns, like Reutersward’s celebrated "The Knotted Gun" near the main entrance of the United Nations.
We can never emphasize enough the centrality of educating the human heart to peace. The heart might be sick, as Jeremiah would say, but it can surely be healed. And it must be healed, because it is where war or peace is begotten and elaborated.
I really love Pope Francis’ exhortation to the Mozambicans a few days ago during his visit there, where his central message was peace and reconciliation. He recognized that it is not easy to speak of reconciliation while wounds are still open from decades of conflict, or to forgive while those who perpetrated grave violations of human rights enjoy impunity. But there is nevertheless a way to peace, he emphasized: the way of Jesus, who calls us to the highest possible standard of love: loving our enemies, showing benevolence towards those who have hurt us, and praying for those who hate us. Jesus, he underlined, has set for us a path of peace and reconciliation, not vengeance and hatred. Pope Francis urged all the Mozambicans to let this peace of Christ reign in their hearts (Col 3.15).
Thank you for creating this occasion to reflect on ways to identify pathways towards a culture peace. All those pathways begin in the human heart. Let peace therefore reign in our hearts!
I am tempted to conclude with a song. But my pianist is not around! So I will just recite its refrain, and I invite you to say with me: “Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.”
Thank you for your kind attention.