This year Pax Christi has changed tack and is encouraging women all over the world to write to Pope Francis. The reason for this is to “affirm his leadership of peace, nonviolence, nuclear disarmament and an end to the arms trade”. Pat Gaffney, the Director of Pax Christi UK explained the thinking behind it: "We feel it is important to acknowledge the role that Pope Francis plays in encouraging a culture of peace and nonviolence - through his own personal witness but also in the way he uses his voice and position to engage internationally in advocacy to challenge the causes of war and violence. His message is for the whole world and is respected and acknowledged way beyond our own Church".
All this is true and Pope Francis is indeed a great advocate for peace. This should be acknowledged and applauded as a sign of hope not just in a world that is racked by violence but also in a Church that often seems more concerned with its own inner workings and teachings than it does with the world at large. But what struck me in reading the list of how Pope Francis is challenging the causes of war and violence is the omission of interreligious dialogue as a positive peace-making activity. It’s quite difficult to convince people of this and to place interfaith encounters within the context of peace and justice. For some face to face encounter is seen as focussing on theological dialogue which doesn’t make much impact on people’s lives – a toothless tiger I’ve heard it described as. This is the kind of encounter Lord Jonathan Sacks describes as face to face. Then there’s the other kind of encounter – the side by side which focusses on some kind of social justice or community concern. Peacemakers would recognise this and be open to working with all faiths in campaigning against, for example nuclear weapons, an end to the arms trade. This is seen as interfaith peace-making and indeed it is. However I am not so sure that we should distinguish between these two kinds of engagement and I see them as two sides of the same coin. It’s not ‘either or’ but ‘both and’. In fact the two are so interrelated they are really one. It’s important, I think, never to underestimate the significance of face to face encounter and how transformative it can be. It can be a powerful witness to the fact that reconciliation is possible.
Almost a year ago Pope Francis met with the grand imam al-Azhar University in Cairo. This is one of the most prestigious centres of learning in the Sunni world and it had discontinued dialogue with the Catholic Church after Pope Benedict’s famous Regensburg address which had been interpreted as the Pope suggesting Islam was linked to violence. Five years later Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb was willing to meet with Pope Francis and as they embraced inside the door of the papal library the Pope told his visitor “the meeting is the message”. This is a profound statement. It shows that the very act of encounter has a message. And what is that message? That strained relations between different faiths, different factions can be overcome. That friendship can be established as a basis for mutual understanding and respect. That reconciliation is always possible if there is openness and honesty. There is no conflict in the world that can be overcome by anything other than dialogue. The way to peace is the way of peace says Tich Nhat Hanh and dialogue shows a willingness to listen to the other and to walk in the way of reconciliation, friendship and peace in spite of the difficulties and setbacks which inevitably arise. While Northern Ireland does not yet have a settled peace it was only able to move beyond the Troubles because ministers such as Tony Blair and Mo Mowlem refused to give up talking. They were able to draw in the opposing sides to work together for a lasting peace and it was something like a miracle that old enemies such as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley were working together. When Martin McGuinness died recently Bill Clinton said that he had been able to extend the ‘us’ and shrink the ‘them’.
There couldn’t be a better way of expressing what dialogue can do and how it can relate to peace. Pope Francis has been as prophetic in witnessing to and encouraging interreligious dialogue as he has been prophetic in denouncing the arms trade. And like his predecessors he sees it as a contribution to peace. There are calls for a future encyclical on non-violence. It’s possible there will be one and if so I do hope that interreligious dialogue will be included as a non-violent way of walking the way of peace.