Central Munich is sparkling, meticulously clean. A lively city life, well-used historic buildings, many churches and well-stocked shops symbolize what peace, culture and prosperity together can bring. It is worth remembering that it was not always so. Munich was shattered by World War II, many of its historic buildings and churches bombed (most were rebuilt as they once were). Hitler started his political career there, and the Dachau concentration camp is nearby. I recall a far more subdued, pained city when my family lived there in the early 1950s. Forty years ago, Munich was the scene of the Olympic tragedy, when Israeli athletes were murdered. But for the inter-religious Sant'Egidio meeting this week, the sun shone brightly and gorgeously appareled men of many religions (yes, almost all men) embraced one another and spoke, one after another, of their passion for peace and justice.
The Rome-based lay Catholic Sant'Egidio community has organized such meetings each year for 25 years, inspired by the 1986 Assisi meeting called by Pope John Paul II to demonstrate that religions could stand side by side in prayer and commit themselves to peace. In a spirit of pilgrimage, the prayer for peace takes place in a different city each year. Last year was Barcelona, Cracow the year before. The choice of Munich for 2011 was inspired, and not only because the Archdiocese and the Community of Sant'Egidio together displayed extraordinary capacities of organization and warm hospitality. The meeting was above all a message of hope: that despite the realities of violence, continuing economic crisis and so many other pains of contemporary life, peace, prosperity, and a rich and meaningful culture are within our grasp.
The German government gave a remarkably warm welcome to the event. Germany's President, Christian Wulff, and the President of Bavaria presided over the commemoration of Sept. 11, then spoke forcefully at the grand opening ceremony. They argued that indeed inter-religious meetings and dialogue were vital to building peaceful societies. More striking, Chancellor Angela Merkel, dealing with the hydra-headed European financial crises, nonetheless came to Munich on Sept. 12 to give a long, meticulously crafted speech that hailed the role of religion and spoke to Europe's Christian heritage and culture. Unusually in a European political setting, she elaborated on the theme that the churches are at the very foundations of Europe's values and its social market economy and that even if church and state are separate, religion has a vital role in the policy realm. She spoke less to the topic of tensions around immigration and building the diverse communities of contemporary Europe but other officials recognized and to a degree took on that highly sensitive topic. Perhaps least probable, Germany's finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble engaged his host, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, on the ethical and practical challenges of financial crises and the impact of globalization. Take a step back, he urged, gain perspective on the core objectives and the real strengths of both society and economy.
Angela Merkel, in her tribute to the Community of Sant'Egidio, also brought in her own message from the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11:
"I believe that the fight against poverty, the fight against injustice is a good means to deprive terrorism of its roots. ... Sant'Egidio has pointed out over and over again that poverty alleviation is the most effective way to combat the crisis. Since its creation in the 1960s, the movement has been dedicated to serving the poor and alleviating suffering, and it also seeks to act on their causes. An important lesson is that war is the father of all poverty. And conversely, we can say that peace is the mother of all development."
The final ceremony of the annual prayer for peace follows a set script but is always deeply moving. Representatives from each of the religions first pray within their own community. They then process toward the main city square, meeting each other along the path, with cheering spectators. The atmosphere is joyful. The idea is that interfaith work deepens one's own faith, that engaging with other faiths in no way need dilute one's beliefs and culture. The leaders then gather on a platform built on the city's central square. An inspirational call to action from Andrea Riccardi, Sant'Egidio's founder kicks off the event. Several witnesses speak as survivors of terrible crises; this year the voices came from Japan's earthquake zone, Oslo, still mourning the July terror attack, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Children from the city are handed copies of an appeal for peace, decorated with a spray from an olive tree, then give them to diplomats and other leaders to spread the word. Music is played, the religious leaders light candles and they sign the appeal for peace.
The final step is the announcement of where the meeting will be held next year, a closely guarded secret until that moment. When the Grand Mufti of Bosnia Serajevo, Mustafa Ceric, and the Catholic archbishop, Pero Sudar, stood together at the podium, the crowd erupted in cheers: "Next year, Sarajevo!" This will be the first time that Muslim and Christian leaders join in organizing the event, the first time the prayer for peace moves to the Balkans, where violence has come in Europe's backyard. The pilgrimage of hope continues, taking a new face and form, year after year.
The tangible results? As for most such meetings they are hard to pin down but for the witnesses who are there restored hope is clearly part of the ethos and the core idea. Not all the talk is abstract nor is there an uncritical view of the virtues of religion. Leaders are called to do more to fight extremism within their own faiths, to speak truth to power with more force, courage and conviction, and to work for social justice, for the poor, for immigrants and for those still caught in conflict. Sparks fly in some of the panels. But overall, there is nothing quite like this annual, living symbol that religions teach a message of peace and justice, and that there is a courageous and often wise network of leaders who are working in many corners of the world to make those teachings a reality.
Follow Katherine Marshall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/patlakath