By Andrea Tornielli
It was 27 October 1986 when recent history stood at a dramatic juncture. The prospect of a nuclear war was real. Yet, St John Paul II courageously convoked representatives of the world’s religions to Assisi, thus conquering quite a bit of resistance, even within the Church. “The gathering together of so many heads of religions to pray”, he said, “is of itself an invitation to today’s world to become aware that there exists another dimension of peace and another way of promoting it, that is not the result of negotiating, of political compromises or economic haggling. Rather, it is the result of prayer, which, even despite the diversity of religions, expresses a relationship with a supreme power that surpasses our human capacity alone”. “We are here”, Pope John Paul added, “because we are certain that there is the need of intense and humble prayer, of confident prayer, if the world will finally become a place of true and permanent peace”.
Let us celebrate this 18 May, the centenary of the birth of this great Pontiff who came from behind the Iron Curtain, who during his long Petrine ministry brought the church into the new millennium; who saw the Berlin Wall fall that divided Europe in two; who hoped to see a new era of peace dawn but who, in his elder years when he was dealing with illness, had instead to face new wars and destabilizing and ruthless terrorism which uses God’s name to sow death and destruction. To counteract this, he reconvoked the heads of the world’s religions in Assisi in January 2002 without ever surrendering to the ideology of the clash of civilizations, but focusing everything always, even until the end, on the encounter among peoples, cultures, religions. He witnessed to a rock-solid faith, the asceticism of a great mystic, an overflowing humanity. He spoke to everyone and never left anything unattempted in order to avoid the irruption of a conflict, thus favouring peaceful transitions, and promoting peace and justice. He travelled far and wide across the globe to embrace all the peoples of the world, proclaiming the Gospel. He fought to defend the dignity of every human life. He paid an historica visit to Rome’s Synagogoe. He was the first Pope in history to cross the threshold of a mosque. He navigated along the way indicated by the Second Vatican Council. He new how to open up new and unexplored paths, even to the point of stating that he was disposed to discuss the way of exercising the ministry of Peter in favour of the unity of Christians. His witness is as current as ever.