Responding to prayers for peace in the Middle East and the troubled relationship between Christians and Muslims, Pope Francis addressed an inter-religious gathering on the dangers of “bigotry, hatred and violence,” and urged inter-faith dialogue to “break through the walls which are preventing us from working for an end to conflicts and conflicts.”
In his homily, the pope said that: “At a time when many are driven by senseless hatred, bombs and civil wars, it is imperative that we strengthen our will to work together in dialogue so that we may contribute to the dawning of a ‘New Spring,’ a spring of peace for the land which has so long been a source of so much suffering.”
Speaking to a crowded Sydney Opera House balcony after he conferred with the Israeli and Palestinian presidents, Francis said: “I am here to speak out against violence and encourage those of us who want to save this beloved land from turning into another desert of hatred, violence and destruction.”
With observers and secular scholars suggesting that the Pope’s remarks could be interpreted as a threat against Jews and Christians, the head of the Catholic Church refrained from doing so. He merely pointed to Nazi-like crimes against the Jewish people and the destruction of the ancient pagan Holy City of Jerusalem as an example to be avoided.
In a body blow to a man who has worked tirelessly to heal years of divisions between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Francis told the audience that, “We must understand that there are deep roots and ancient wounds, which are slowly rotting the relationship between Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church.” He did not mention Jews, but the words of “the once bitter enemies of Christendom” in an address to Jewish leaders in 2014 sounded similar.
While he mentioned further proposals to provide “constructive dialogue” among Christians and the Orthodox Church, the Pope seemed to welcome discussions with Jews as well, “under the name of Judaism” “to seek ways to deepen our inter-religious dialogue.” As the New York Times pointed out, “The question of Christians and Jews,” Francis said, “should not be separated from the question of peace in the Middle East, because they are one people — not just by religion, but in their family and their communities, as well.”
After his political rhetoric, Francis addressed the council’s attendees directly: “Are we ready to break through the walls which are preventing us from working for an end to conflicts and conflicts? Are we ready to work together, because no solution to the problems of the Middle East can be found apart from a knowledge of your faith and our faith? Are we ready to abandon age-old suspicions and that which divides us, and unite as brothers and sisters in the name of Christ?”
The three-day Sydney Synod is the second of its kind to be convened to study the continuing conflict between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and was meant to help draw inspiration from models like Inter-Religious Council of Asia-Pacific, another organization aimed at improving the global situation between Christians and Muslims.
Each of the four members of the Opus Dei, a Latin American order of Benedictine monks, praised Francis for his approach. Following the ceremony on Thursday morning, a spokesperson for Opus Dei said: “The pope came out in favor of peace, but also in favor of a compromise, which is the message of Vatican II.”
Former Pope Benedict XVI spent 12 years in Rome and released his own full letter on interfaith relations after his election, “He who believes not that his enemies will be lost, but that his enemies will be destroyed, in order that he should rather forget of theirs” .
While Francis has stressed the closeness of the Catholic and Orthodox Church since his election, those sentiments reflect Vatican II’s commitment to “a deep recognition of the shared good” among Jews, Muslims, Christians and those with no one faith or no faith, and to inculcate that sense of tolerance in younger generations.