Peter Novecosky, OSB

Idea of united religions

One hundred years ago, at the beginning of the First World War, Pope Benedict XV was elected pope. He immediately opposed the war, but his voice remained unheard. I noted in my Sept. 3 editorial that the power and influence of the Vatican was at a low ebb. In 1914 it had relations with only two great powers: Austria-Hungary and the Russian empire.

While Pope Benedict XV is called The Unknown Pope by his biographer, he did increase the prestige and influence of the Holy See. During his seven-year reign he established diplomatic relations with most of the great powers of his time.

A hundred years later, the Holy See is in a much stronger position of influence. It has diplomatic relations with more than 180 nations. Some critics say it has too much influence, including a voice at the United Nations.

More importantly, the Holy See has achieved a moral status it didn’t have a hundred years ago.

The point was made Sept. 4 when former Israeli President Shimon Peres asked Pope Francis to head a parallel United Nations called the United Religions to counter religious extremism in the world today.

“In the past, most wars were motivated by the idea of nationhood. Today, however, wars are incited above all using religion as an excuse,” Peres told the Catholic magazine, Famiglia Cristiana, ahead of his Sept. 4 meeting with the pope.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesperson, confirmed that Peres, who ended his presidential term in July, had requested the meeting and told the pope about his idea.

“The pope made no personal commitment” and reminded Peres that the Vatican has the Pontifical Councils for Inter-religious Dialogue and for Justice and Peace — two offices “that are suitable” for supporting or following such initiatives, Lombardi told Catholic News Service.

In his interview with Famiglia Cristiana, the 91-year-old former two-term prime minister of Israel expanded on his initiative. He said he wanted to establish an international body representing the world’s major religions, as a moral force able to intervene in conflicts.

He said Pope Francis would be the best person to head such a world body because “perhaps for the first time in history, the Holy Father is a leader who’s respected, not just by a lot of people, but also by different religions and their representatives.”

“In fact, perhaps he is the only leader who is truly respected” in the world, said Peres, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Palestine Liberation Organization chair Yasser Arafat and Israeli Premier Yitzak Rabin.

In a complimentary tribute, Peres said the United Nations and its peacekeepers “do not have the force or the effectiveness of any one of the pope’s homilies, which can draw half a million people just in St. Peter’s Square alone.”

“So given that the United Nations has run its course, what we need is an organization of United Religions,” Peres said, as “the best way to counteract these terrorists who kill in the name of their faith.”

“What we need is an unquestionable moral authority who says out loud, ‘No. God doesn’t want this and doesn’t allow it,’ ’’ he said.

Prayer is also an important part of peacemaking, he said; people should not underestimate “the power of the human spirit.”

How tables have turned in the past 10 decades, or even the past six decades since the United Nations was formed with great hope. Worthy of note is the fact that it’s not the church that has made this suggestion, but a Jewish leader from the field of politics. He acknowledges that the road to peace is not through politics and power-mongering, but through a renewal of faith and moral discipleship.

 
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