Pope Benedict XVI called for a greater sense of brotherhood in the world as the first official modern forum for dialogue between believers and non-believers was inaugurated last week in Paris.
“Religions cannot be afraid of a just secularism, a secularism that is open and allows individuals to live according to what they believe in their own consciences,” he said.
“If we are to build a world of freedom, equality and fraternity, believers and non-believers should feel themselves to be free, with equal rights to live their individual and community lives in accordance with their own convictions; and they must be brothers to one another.”
The Vatican's first-ever “Courtyard of the Gentiles” event was held in Paris, France from March 24-25. The Pontifical Council for Culture, led by president Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, organized the two-day discussion between believers and non-believers in historically important cultural sites in the French capital.
The Courtyard was formed by the Vatican's culture department after the Pope hoped for such a forum to foster dialogue on religion in a Dec. 2009 speech.
Catholics and atheists examined themes of enlightenment, religion and shared reason during gatherings at the offices of the UNESCO, the Sorbonne University and the French Academy during the inaugural event.
The evening of the second day was capped off with a large gathering at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The Taize community held a prayer service inside the Church as people gathered for music and mixed in the square outside. A light show beamed onto the cathedral facade was part of the festivities.
In a pre-recorded message addressed to youth in the square, Pope Benedict XVI said that the “question of God” must not be absent from contemporary discussion. He called all young people - believers and non-believers - to “rediscover the path of dialogue” in Europe.
Dialogue, he said, will help both to overcome fears of the unknown.
The Courtyard project, he said, “is to foster such feelings of fraternity, over and above individual beliefs but without denying differences and, even more profoundly, recognizing that only God, in Christ, gives us inner freedom and the possibility of truly coming together as brothers.”
He told the youth not to be afraid. “On your journey together towards a new world, seek the absolute, seek God, even those of you for whom he is an unknown God.”
For his part, Cardinal Ravasi was pleased with the product of months of preparation. He went through highlights of the inaugural event with Vatican Radio.
The cardinal found “a particular attention and sensitivity” in the city of Paris, historically "the city of secularism, ... liberty, independence between Church and State."
The subjects of discussion, he said, were chosen "with much passion" and he came away with the sensation that the Parisian encounter could be a model for others.
For the future, he said, Courtyard activities may aim not only to engage atheism and non-believers, but "superficiality and the absence of questions towards faith that are often noted at the lowest levels."
He noted that there was an unexpected result to the encounter. Non-believing philosopher Luc Ferry asked him to collaborate in writing a book on the Gospel of St. John.
Tirana, Albania is slated to host a similar Vatican-sponsored event for dialogue in October.
Stockholm, Prague and Florence will also see individualized events in coming years, each tailored to the city and culture that surrounds them. Interest has also been expressed for hosting Courtyard events in cities like Chicago and Washington, D.C, but also Moscow, Russia and Geneva, Switzerland.
Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, commented during his weekly television editorial on Vatican Television that the Pope has emphasized since the first day of his pontificate that the "question of God" is the most important one for all for all people.
The Courtyard, he said, is "an optimal point of departure" for deepening the study of such questions together.