Peace requires us to do more than 'change the channel,' Pope Francis says

Pope Francis arrives in Assisi Italy for the World Day of Prayer for Peace at the Sacred Convent Sept 20 2016 Credit LOsservatore Romano 3 CNA Pope Francis arrives in Assisi, Italy for the World Day of Prayer for Peace at the Sacred Convent, Sept. 20, 2016. | L'Osservatore Romano.

While in Assisi for an interreligious prayer gathering, Pope Francis cautioned against an indifference that ignores the suffering of others as easily as flipping through TV channels, stressing that peace only comes through action and solidarity.

In the words "I thirst," whispered by Jesus as he hangs on the Cross, "the voice of the suffering, the hidden cry of the little innocent ones to whom the light of this world is denied, the sorrowful plea of the poor and those most in need of peace" is audible, Pope Francis said Sept. 20.

Victims of war, "which sullies people with hate and the earth with arms," cry out for peace, he said, noting how many live under the daily threat of bombs and are forced to leave their homelands in search of safety.

These people "thirst. But they are frequently given, like Jesus, the bitter vinegar of rejection," he said.

"Who listens to them? Who bothers responding to them?" Francis asked, lamenting that "far too often they encounter the deafening silence of indifference, the selfishness of those annoyed at being pestered, the coldness of those who silence their cry for help with the same ease with which television channels are changed."

These people, he said, are not merely a nameless face, but are all "brothers and sisters of the Crucified One…the wounded and parched members of his body."

Pope Francis traveled to Assisi to mark the 30th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace that St. John Paul II convoked in the city in 1986.

St. John Paul II went back to Assisi for successive events 1993 and 2002. The last day of prayer led by a Pope was convoked by Benedict XVI in 2011, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first historic meeting in Assisi.

However, the Sant'Egidio community has organized an interreligious meeting every year since 1986, held at different locations. This year, the meeting is held again in Assisi, from Sept. 18-20 and is titled "Thirst for Peace."

The gatherings attended by Popes have traditionally taken place in years marked by major conflict or threats of violence, such as the 1986 gathering, which was framed by Cold War tensions and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Later, in 1991, St. John Paul II attended the event in the backdrop of the war in the Balkans, while in 2002 he led the world's interreligious leaders in praying for peace just months after the deadly Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.

Now, Francis himself attends with the looming threat of ISIS spread throughout the Middle East and, increasingly so, in Europe. His presence at the prayer summit is his third time in Assisi, the first having taken place Oct. 4, 2013, for the feast day of his namesake, and the second being just a few weeks ago on Aug. 4, to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the "perdono" indulgence.

This year the prayer event gathered 476 official representatives from different religions, along with more than 1,500 volunteers and thousands of other participants. There were 9 different major religions and 26 different religious confessions represented.

For the occasion, the diocese of Assisi gave Pope Francis a 112-page book covering the 30-year "Story of Assisi" with commentary from the key speakers of each major encounter since the launch of the event in 1986. It also includes the testimonies of two victims of war who share their personal experience.

After spending nearly an hour greeting participants from different religions after his arrival, Pope Francis met individually with leaders of several major religions, including Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople; His Holiness Ignatius Ephraim II, Syriac-Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch; His Grace Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of the Church of England and Great Rabbi of Israel David Rosen.

The Pope then had lunch with 12 refugees who fled war in various countries around the world before leading Christians in a moment of ecumenical prayer in the lower part of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, during which all countries at war were named, and a candle lit for each one.

Pope Francis spoke after hearing brief addresses from both Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Welby, who made a distinction between the human economy of profit and the economy of God.

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"In God's economy, we are the poorest of the poor…because we think ourselves rich, because we have money," the archbishop said, but stressed that our human wealth is like "a children's game," and that "we are only truly rich when we receive mercy from God."

"Our imaginary economy not only deceives us…it drains our energies in the pursuit of illusions," he said, noting that God, on the other hand, "offers us wealth that is real" through his mercy, which replaces the illusion of our wealth with "the reality of peace and love, because when we receive mercy and peace we become the bearers of love and peace."

In his brief speech, Bartholomew said that today Christians are called to give "a testimony of communion."

The patriarch stressed that communion among Christians today is commonly lived out as "communion which is martyrdom."

"We are therefore thirsty, we must be thirsty…for thirst is the symbol of our need and yearning," he said, and encouraged participants to turn to the other and let "a listening silence…permeate us," because "there can be no conversion without listening."

In his own reflection, Francis himself turned to the gathering's theme, explaining that while Jesus certainly thirsts for water while hanging on the Cross, above all he thirsts "for love, that element no less essential for living."

"He thirsts to give us the living waters of his love, but also to receive our love," Francis said, and pointed to the reality that "Love is not loved," which, according to some, is what most upset the Pope's namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.

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St. Francis "was not ashamed to cry out and grieve loudly" for love of the suffering Lord, the Pope said, adding that this same reality must perpetually be in the hearts of all as we contemplate Christ Crucified, "who thirsts for love."

He noted how St. Teresa of Calcutta, whom he canonized Sept. 4, sought to quench this thirst through service to the poorest of the poor. The Lord's thirst is quenched by our compassionate love, Francis said, adding that Christ "is consoled when, in his name, we bend down to another's suffering."

Pointing to Jesus' words in the Gospel "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me," Pope Francis said they challenge us, seeking "a place in our heart and a response that involves our whole life."

As Christians, we are called to reflect on the mystery of "Love not loved," and to pour out mercy onto the world.

"On the cross, the tree of life, evil was transformed into good," Francis said, explaining that as disciples of the Crucified Lord, we too "are called to be 'trees of life' that absorb the contamination of indifference and restore the pure air of love to the world."

After his reflection, Pope Francis and other major leaders of different forms of Christianity gathered alongside him closed their liturgy before heading to the concluding ceremony, during which representatives from all the major religions present issued a joint appeal for peace.

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