(Vatican Radio) – It is time for Christians and Muslims to come together in a decided and sincere witness against divisions, violence and war: This was Pope Benedict XVI’s clear message Wednesday morning, during his general audience at the Vatican.
The Pope spoke of his recent Apostolic voyage to Lebanon to the 8, 000 pilgrims gathered in the Paul VI hall, stressing that he had strongly wanted this the trip to go ahead, because “a father should always be near his children when they encounter grave problems”, and to bring a message of encouragement and peace, in particular for Syria and Iraq.
Pope Benedict said that during his visit, the people of Lebanon and the Middle East – Catholics, representatives of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities and of the various Muslim communities – enthusiastically and in a relaxed and constructive atmosphere, experienced the importance of mutual respect, understanding and brotherhood, which is a strong sign of hope for all humanity. He added that the constant presence and participation of Muslims gave him the opportunity to launch a call to dialogue and collaboration between Christianity and Islam”.
Benedict XVI also expressed his profound gratitude for the fervent faith and witness of the thousands of Catholics from Lebanon and the Middle East who accompanied each stage of his visit. It is a sign of hope, he concluded “for the future of the Church in those lands: young people, adults and families motivated by a strong desire to root their lives in Christ, to remain anchored to the Gospel, to walk together in the Church”.
Below a Vatican Radio translation of the Holy Father’s address:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to briefly return, in my thoughts and heart, to those extraordinary days of my Apostolic journey to Lebanon. A trip that I had strongly wanted, despite the difficult circumstances, considering that a father should always be near his children when they encounter grave problems. I was moved by a sincere desire to announce the peace that the risen Lord gave to his disciples and summarized in the words “My peace I give to you – سلامي أعطيكم” (Jn 14:27). The main aim of my journey was the signing and consignment of the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente to the representatives of the Catholic communities of the Middle East, to other Churches and ecclesial communities as well as Muslim leaders.
It was a moving ecclesial event and, at the same time, a provident opportunity for dialogue lived in a complex but emblematic country for the entire region, because of its tradition of coexistence and fruitful cooperation between the different religious and social components. In the face of the suffering and tragedies that continue in that area of the Middle East, I expressed my heartfelt closeness to the legitimate aspirations of those dear people, bringing them a message of encouragement and peace. I am thinking in particular of the terrible conflict that torments Syria, causing, in addition to thousands of deaths, a stream of refugees that pours into the region desperately seeking security and a future; neither have I forgotten the plight of Iraq. During my visit, the people of Lebanon and the Middle East – Catholics, representatives of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities and of the various Muslim communities – enthusiastically and in a relaxed and constructive atmosphere, experienced the importance of mutual respect, understanding and brotherhood, which is a strong sign of hope for all humanity. But it was the encounter with the Catholic faithful of Lebanon and the Middle East, present in their thousands, which aroused in me a feeling of deep gratitude for the ardor of their faith and their witness.
I thank the Lord for this precious gift, which gives hope for the future of the Church in those areas: youth, adults and families motivated by the strong desire to root their lives in Christ, to remain anchored to the Gospel, to walk together in the Church. I renew my gratitude also to all who worked tirelessly for my visit: the Patriarchs and Bishops of Lebanon with their staff, the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, consecrated persons and the lay faithful, which are a precious and meaningful reality in Lebanese society. I was able to observe firsthand that the Lebanese Catholic communities, through their presence and their millennial commitment full of hope, offer a significant and valued contribution to the daily lives of all the inhabitants of the country. My respect and gratitude go to the Lebanese authorities, institutions and associations, volunteers and all those who have offered their support in prayer. I can not forget the warm welcome I received from the President of the Republic, Mr. Michel Sleiman, as well as the various components of the country and the people: it was a warm welcome, in line with the famous Lebanese hospitality. Muslims welcomed me with great respect and sincere consideration, their constant presence and participation gave me the opportunity to launch a call to dialogue and collaboration between Christianity and Islam: it seems to me that the time has come for us to give a decided and sincere witness together against the divisions and wars. The Catholics, who also came from neighboring countries, fervently expressed their deep affection for the Successor of Peter.
After the beautiful ceremony on my arrival at Beirut airport, the first meeting was of particular solemnity: the signing of the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, in the Greek-Catholic Basilica of St. Paul in Harissa. On that occasion I invited Catholics in the Middle East to fix their gaze on Christ Crucified to find the strength, even in difficult and painful contexts, to celebrate the victory of love over hate, forgiveness over revenge and unity over division. I assured them all that the universal Church is closer than ever, with affection and prayer, to the Church in the Middle East: they, despite being a “little flock”, need not fear, knowing that the Lord is always with them. The Pope does not forget them.
On the second day of my Apostolic Journey I met the representatives of the institutions of the Republic and the world of culture, the diplomatic corps and religious leaders. To them, among others, I pointed a way forward to promote a future of peace and solidarity: this means working so that cultural, social and religious differences result in a sincere dialogue, a new fraternity, united by a shared sense of the greatness and dignity of every person, whose life must always be defended and protected. On the same day I had a meeting with the heads of Muslim religious communities, which took place in a spirit of dialogue and mutual benevolence. I thank God for this meeting. The world today needs clear and strong signs of dialogue and cooperation, of which Lebanon has been and must continue to be an example to the Arab countries and the rest of the world.
In the afternoon, at the residence of the Maronite Patriarch, I was greeted by the irrepressible enthusiasm of thousands of young people from Lebanon and from neighboring countries, who gave rise to a moment of great celebration and prayer, that will remain unforgettable for many. I pointed out their good fortune to live in that part of the world that saw Jesus, Crucified and Risen for our salvation, and the development of Christianity, exhorting them to fidelity and love for their land, despite the difficulties caused by the lack of stability and security. In addition, I encouraged them to be firm in their faith, trusting in Christ, the source of our joy, and to deepen their personal relationship with Him in prayer, as well as to be open to the great ideals of life, family, friendship and solidarity. Seeing young Christians and Muslims celebrate in great harmony, I encouraged them to build together the future of Lebanon and the Middle East and to oppose violence and war. Harmony and reconciliation must be stronger than the forces of death.
On Sunday morning, there was a very intense moment of great participation in the Holy Mass at the City Center Waterfront in Beirut, accompanied by evocative hymns and chants, which also characterized other celebrations. In the presence of many bishops and a large crowd of faithful from all over the Middle East, I urged everyone to live and to witness their faith without fear, knowing that the vocation of the Christian and the Church is to bring the Gospel to all without distinction, following the example of Jesus in a context marked by bitter conflicts, I drew attention to the need to serve peace and justice by becoming instruments of reconciliation and builders of communion. At the end of the Eucharistic celebration, I had the joy of presenting the Apostolic Exhortation which gathers the conclusions of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. Through the Patriarchs and Eastern and Latin Bishops, priests, religious and laity, this Document wants to reach all the faithful of that dear land, to support them in their faith and communion and encourage them on the path of the much hoped for new evangelization. In the afternoon, at the headquarters of the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate, I then had the joy of a fraternal ecumenical meeting with the Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs and representatives of those Churches, as well as other Ecclesial Communities.
Dear friends, the days spent in Lebanon were a wonderful manifestation of faith and religious feeling and a prophetic sign of peace. The multitude of believers from the entire Middle East, had the opportunity to reflect, to talk and especially to pray together, renewing their commitment to root their lives in Christ. I am sure that the people of Lebanon, in its varied but well blended religious and social composition, will know how to witness with renewed impetus to the true peace that comes from faith in God. I hope that the messages of peace and respect that I wanted to give, will help governments of the region to take decisive steps towards peace and a better understanding of the relationship between Christians and Muslims. For my part, I continue to accompany those beloved people in prayer, so that they remain faithful to their commitments. To the maternal intercession of Mary, venerated in so many and ancient Lebanese shrines, I entrust the fruits of this pastoral visit, as well as the good intentions and the just aspirations of the entire Middle East.