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Ecumenical and Interreligious Service - Homily based on Luke 6:27-38

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption

The prayers that the Christians offered in Assisi today reflected the words of Jesus we have heard now from the Gospel according to St. Luke. They are not easy words to read or to hear, because they call for attitudes and actions that run counter to our human inclinations. How does one respond to the injunction of Jesus, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you and pray for those who maltreat you"? (Luke 6:27)

In preparing for this service, I turned to the life and writings of St. Francis of Assisi. His greeting to people he met by the way was, "Pax et bonum." "Peace and all good things." For him the words of Jesus in the gospel offered marching orders. And yet he saw, as Jesus did, and as we must, that human freedom is to be respected, even though humans may sometimes intentionally crash planes into high buildings or start wars or intentionally kill others. Often enough, thank God, human freedom comes to right conclusions, albeit slowly and painfully.

Here is an account of one unfolding story in which Francis found himself an actor: the nearby city of Perugia was experiencing conflict and turmoil. His brothers saw that Francis must have had a vision in his cell, an inspiration to go personally to Perugia to preach there on the gospel. He went, and spoke of peace, and was interrupted by knights on horseback. He turned to them and most likely preached to their backs, as they were galloping away. He scolded them for not attending to God's word and predicted that the city of Perugia would "fall into civil war, so that one will rise against the other.... Wrath will teach you, for kindness has not taught you."

The account continues, "Not many days after this ... arms were taken up against those close to them, the citizens fought against the knights, and the nobles attacked the ordinary people; the battle was fought with such fury and slaughter that the neighbors who had been wronged grieved with them." Peace finally came, but at what a price! (Cf. Celano, Second Life of St. Francis, Omnibus of Sources, pp. 194-5) Francis, in his preaching, tried to reflect the perfection of the vision of Jesus. The people of Perugia acted in a human way, unresponsive at first to the grace of God.

Against the background of the words of Jesus and of Francis, I suggest we reflect briefly on September 11 and its worldwide aftermath. For most of October I was in Rome, attending the World Synod of Bishops as a representative of our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Immediately on arrival, from every quarter I heard expressions of sympathy for the events of 9/11. I quickly learned that this was not simply a tragedy for our country; because of instantaneous worldwide sharing through television, it was seen and felt as an immense tragedy for and by almost the whole human family.

During the Synod Pope John Paul II was with us on all our working days in plenary session. He invited every single synod participant - bishops, religious men and women, laity, and the fraternal delegates from other Christian Churches - to join him at his table for either dinner or supper.

In the second week of our sessions, the Holy Father's invitation came to me. Nine of us were his guests for dinner, including the four fraternal delegates. After offering grace, the Pope asked me, "Cardinal Keeler, how are the people of Baltimore doing after September 11?" I answered that it seemed to me that the events helped people to see what really mattered in life: relationships with God, with family, with others, with one's work, and to realize more clearly the fragility of our life here on earth. Then the Holy Father proceeded to involve each of the other dinner guests in the conversation.

As our reflection continued, I recalled what Pope John Paul said nearly two years ago in Jerusalem at a meeting with Jews and Muslims. He reminded all present then that, for all our faith differences, we each came from a faith family that held that violence is the wrong way to solve problems and that reconciliation and peace are so crucial if we want to have a world at peace.

Before going to Jerusalem, at St. Peter's in Rome, Pope John Paul presided at a Lenten celebration of the Eucharist in which, in the name of the whole Church he and others begged God's pardon for offences committed through the years of history by people of the Church against others, sometimes sadly in the name of religion. As we ask for forgiveness, we also must be forgiving. That is the message of the words of Jesus in the gospel. It is a thought built into the Lord's own prayer, the Our Father. On this thought Pope John Paul has acted, not only in St. Peter's, but also in France, on August 24, 1997, St. Bartholomew's Day, when he asked God's pardon for the role of Catholics in the slaughter of the Huguenots, in Prague, when he prayed for forgiveness for the role of Catholics in religious conflicts, in Jerusalem, placing in the Western Wall the prayer that God pardon offences committed by Christians against the Jewish people, and last year in Athens, begging the Lord's forgiveness for violence inflicted on the Orthodox Christians by Catholics during the crusades.

It is touching indeed when leaders of other faith families, in their own actions, acknowledge past failings, sadly done in the name of religion. This spirit has been reflected in our prayers this afternoon. I saw evidence also of it in England. There, at the sites of once flourishing monasteries, signs, supplemented by guidebooks, instruct visitors that King Henry VIII and his nobles suppressed and plundered the monasteries out of their greed for the properties and revenues of the ancient monastic foundations.

Forgiving does not preclude or rule out justice. In the aftermath of September 11, with its enormous injustice to the thousands of innocent men, women and children killed in the terrorist attacks, justice should be done in a public way and the innocent everywhere should be protected from further violence. At the outset our leaders affirmed their intention to direct the armed might of the coalition nations toward military targets. The struggle in Afghanistan is probably unique in history because of the humanitarian aid simultaneously given to a populace that has suffered decades of deprivation under successive oppressive governments.

From a distance we can pray that the ethical standards of the officers making the military decisions have guided them in the particular choices they have made, often under great pressure of time. We can also hope and pray that, even as terrorists are pursued in other places, the pursuit will respect and honor the immunity of non-combatants, who themselves can become victims when there is carelessness in assigning targets or in choosing tactics. In his 2002 World Day of Peace message, Pope John Paul II reminds us that true peace is born of both justice and forgiveness. He speaks at length about forgiveness and notes especially the human cost of the lack of forgiveness:

“By contrast, the failure to forgive, especially when it serves to prolong conflict is extremely costly in terms of human development. Resources are used for weapons rather than for development, peace and justice. What sufferings are inflicted on humanity because of lack of forgiveness! What delays in progress because of the failure to forgive! Peace is essential for development, but true peace is made possible only through forgiveness.”

As we pray for peace, we must keep in mind "the peace of Jerusalem." A psalm of King David bids us, "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem." (Ps 122:6) The news of recent months and even this week makes this prayer an imperative for us this afternoon and every day. The land that is holy for the three world religions with roots in Abraham, namely, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, should be the place where the basic teachings of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace at long last bear fruit. And so many who live in the Holy Land do see this. In eight visits to the region, I have met ordinary people on all sides who dream of a day when peace can come, when their children can grow up without the presence of constant threat and fear. This is true of those in Israel, in the land under the Palestinian Authority, and in neighboring countries, like Jordan and Egypt.

As we meet here, we should note that other bishops from around the world are in the Holy Land working diligently in the interest of peace. Included in this group is Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, President of our United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with the General Secretary, Monsignor William P. Fay, and Father Drew Christianson, who is well known for his work with the Holy See and bishops’ conferences on issues relating to the Middle East. Their present meeting is focused on a critical issue: our deep concern about the disappearance of Christians from the area as a result of the turmoil. They are well aware of our pilgrimage today, and Monsignor Fay telephoned this afternoon from Jerusalem to convey their solidarity with us, even as we pray for their mission.

Sadly, too many in the region now seem determined to keep alive ancient differences and to mask areas where people of different ethnic and faith families should be standing together. We must pray today that the vision of the ordinary people come to pass, that the right of Israel to exist with its borders recognized and secure, and the right of Palestinians to have their own homeland with their dignity and freedom honored, be secured for the whole world to see. We "pray for the peace of Jerusalem" itself, that it may be a place of peace, where the basic civil and religious rights of all citizens are protected under law.

We must be saddened at the cycle of violence and retaliation now darkening the region. Today we pray that wisdom may prevail over ancient enmities and new events and that the swords of war be transformed into the ploughshares of peace and progress.

Here it is very helpful, I submit, to recall what Pope John Paul II said in his address to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, just ten days ago:

"We also need to heed the question which comes to us from the depths of the abyss: that of the place and the use made of religion in the lives of people and societies. Here I wish to say once again, before the whole international community, that killing in the name of God is an act of blasphemy and a perversion of religion. This morning I wish to repeat what I wrote in my Message for January 1: ‘It is a profanation of religion to declare oneself a terrorist in the name of God, to do violence to others in His name. Terrorist violence is a contradiction of faith in God, the Creator of man, who cares for man and loves him.'"

Recently, almost lost in the daily reporting of violent deeds, was a decision of the cabinet of Israel to honor a commitment made earlier by its government and sustained by its courts, namely, to provide for more adequate access to one of the most sacred of Christian shrines, the Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth. An extremist Muslim group, denounced by Muslim leaders, including Yasser Arafat and others in the Holy Land itself, and major religious figures in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, began covertly to construct a mosque on the public property committed by the State of Israel to parking for the pilgrim buses coming to Nazareth. The cabinet has voted to stop construction of the mosque and assigned cabinet members the task of finding in Nazareth a more suitable location for a mosque—one that would not violate past commitments and put at risk worldwide relationships between Jews and Christians and Muslims. (Incidentally, several of the national Muslims leaders in the United States have endorsed the need to find another site for the mosque.)

The passage from the scripture reading envisages a reward from the Lord for those who offer forgiveness and work for reconciliation, a work that can be a blessing for a family, a workplace, a neighborhood, as well as on the world scene. "Pardon, and you shall be pardoned. Give, and it shall be given to you. Good measure pressed down, shaken together, running over, will they pour into the fold of your garment. For the measure you measure with will be measured back to you." (Luke 6)