“Your Holiness, please come to India.” “Yes, next year,” Pope Francis answered softly but emphatically and with a smile. The twinkle in his eyes accentuated his joy at meeting an Indian and showed the pope’s keenness to visit a country he knows should have been on his itinerary earlier.
The pontiff was meeting nearly 500 participants — from all over the world — of the inter-faith conference in the holy town of Assisi in Italy (18-20 September). The moment was special; we had assembled to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the meet of leaders and representatives of all religions convened in 1986 by Pope John Paul II. The place too was special — the scenic mountain-top Basilica of St. Francis (1182-1226), whose name and mission the pope has chosen for his papacy.
Like St. Francis of Assisi, whom his ardent admirer, Mahatma Gandhi, described as “a great yogi in Europe”, Pope Francis has been passionately advocating inter-faith harmony and protection of the environment. His encyclical on climate change, released before the Paris Summit, is a searing indictment of the ecological destruction in our time. This has earned him the epithets, “Green Pope” and “Poor Man’s Pope”.
In Assisi, he was the pope of nonviolence. He had come to specially greet the conference, organised by the Community of Sant’egidio, a Vatican-inspired body, that has been holding inter-faith meets every year in different cities in Europe since 1986. I have been participating in these annual conferences for the past few years as a Hindu representative.
I presented four of my books to the pope. The first caught his attention, for it is titled, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Francis and Pope Francis — Three great men and their endeavours to combine God-ward devotion with Man-ward love. He showed much interest in the title of my book on Mahatma Gandhi — Music of the Spinning Wheel. The next, on Swami Vivekananda, needed some explanation since he did not seem to know “this great Hindu monk who was a pioneer of inter-faith dialogue — he gave an inspiring speech at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. I also gave him, Fatwa on terrorism and suicide bombings by Pakistan’s renowned Islamic scholar, Tahir-ul-Qadri, the Indian edition of which carries my introductory essay.
The choice of Qadri’s Quranic condemnation of terrorism and wars in the name of Islam was deliberate. The Assisi meet — its theme was thirst for peace — was held against the backdrop of the fratricidal wars in four Muslim countries — Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. The refugee crisis, triggered by these wars, has become an existential crisis for Europe, forcing it to come to grips with its own past and its uncertain future.
The Pope’s sermon connected the timeless messages of religion with the pressing challenges before today’s world. His words — peace alone, and not war, is holy — were clearly addressed to the misguided jihadists of ISIS and other terrorist organisations. “The name of God cannot be used to justify violence.”
His words also addressed the common people. “Our future consists in living together. For this reason we are called to free ourselves from the heavy burdens of distrust, fundamentalism and hate. Believers should be artisans of peace in their prayers to God and in their actions for humanity.” The pope never misses an opportunity to tell political leaders of the world what they should hear. In Assisi, he said: “We turn to those who hold the greatest responsibility in the service of the peoples, to the leaders of nations, so that they may not tire of seeking and promoting ways of peace, looking beyond their particular interests and those of the moment: May they not remain deaf to God’s appeal to their consciences, to the cry of the poor for peace and to the healthy expectations of the younger generations.”
I could clearly see how relevant his message was for the current situation in violence-scarred Kashmir, and why Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif needed to pay heed to it. After the ceremony was over, I went up to the pope, shook his hand reverentially, and made an appeal: “Your Holiness, please pray for India-Pakistan peace and reconciliation.”
He seemed a little taken aback. After a pause, he said forcefully, “Yes, I will!”