Arriving to celebrate Mass October 21 in Naples’ historic Piazza del Plebiscito, Pope Benedict stopped to embrace Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and other leaders of Christian churches.
The religious leaders were in Naples for an October 21-23 interreligious meeting sponsored by the Rome-based Sant’Egidio Community. After the Mass, they were joined by representatives of the Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and other religions for a meeting and lunch with the Pope.
Bartholomew, Williams and Ezzedine Ibrahim, a Muslim scholar from the United Arab Emirates, were among the nine guests at the Pope’s table. Ibrahim was one of 138 Muslim leaders and scholars who signed an October 11 letter to the Pope and other Christian leaders proposing a dialogue based on the shared beliefs that there is only one God, that God loves the people he created and that he calls believers to love others.
Williams told Catholic News Service October 22 that one of the topics discussed at lunch was his suggestion that Christian leaders together compose an official response to the Muslim scholars.
He said the Pope and the Rev. Samuel Kobia, a Methodist minister and secretary general of the World Council of Churches, reacted positively to the suggestion and “now it’s a question of trying to connect the dots” with their interreligious dialogue experts drafting a text.
Before the lunch, Pope Benedict told the religious leaders, “We are all called to work for peace and to make a concrete commitment to promoting reconciliation among peoples.”
He said the interreligious meetings Pope John Paul II convoked in Assisi, Italy, in 1986 and 2002 to pray for peace were animated by a spirit of opposition to violence and of a strict refusal to allow faith to be used as a pretext for violence.
“Before a world lacerated by conflicts, where some even try to justify violence in the name of God, it is important to reaffirm that religions must never be vehicles of hatred and that evil and violence can never be justified by invoking God’s name,” he said.
On a more local level, Pope Benedict used the morning Mass to speak openly about Naples’ persistent problems with poverty, violence, organized crime, crumbling infrastructure and unemployment.
He told the people that “at first glance” the Gospel message about the need to pray without ceasing could appear irrelevant in the face of so many real problems and even violent deaths as members of the Camorra crime organization settle scores with each other.
But, the Pope insisted, “the force that, in silence and without fuss, changes the world and transforms it into the kingdom of God, is faith — and the expression of faith is prayer.”
Pope Benedict said it is obvious that sometimes it seems prayers are not being answered, but people must have faith that if they persevere in prayer, God will intervene with justice.
However, he said, “God cannot change things without our conversion, and our real conversion begins with the cry of the spirit that begs for forgiveness and salvation.”
To pray is not to ask God to do everything, he said, and it is not to withdraw from the world and wait until things improve.
Christian prayer, he said, “is the strength of hope, the maximum expression of faith in the power of God who is love and will not abandon us.”
Naples has plenty of “healthy energies (and) good people,” he said. “But for many people, life is not easy: There are many situations of poverty, lack of housing, unemployment and underemployment, the lack of future prospects.
“Then there is the sad phenomenon of violence. It is not just a matter of the Camorra’s disgusting number of crimes, but also the fact that violence unfortunately tends to become a widespread mentality, insinuating itself in layers of social life,” he said.