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Peace and Social Dialogue: A Conversation with Dr. Andrea Bartoli

Dr. Andrea Bartoli is the president of the New York-based Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue. A globally recognized expert in conflict resolution, Dr Bartoli is also a former dean of the Seton Hall School of Diplomacy and International Relations and of the George Mason University School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Dr. Bartoli recently participated as a speaker in CAPP-Canada’s online workshop series, “Catholic Social Teaching: the Solution to Polarization.” The next workshops will take place on April 22 and May 27: Register here.

CAPP-Canada: Professor Bartoli, thank you for having accepted our invitation. To begin, could you describe the mission and work of the Sant’Egidio Foundation, of which you are president?

The Sant’Egidio Foundation for Peace and Dialogue was created by the Community of Sant’Egidio in 2019, in the attempt to understand better its peace work. The Community itself was founded in 1968 in Rome by Andrea Riccardi, when he was 18. While the Foundation is an American-based, non-for-profit organisation, the Community is a Catholic lay association of the Church recognized by the Holy See.

The three pillars of the Community of Sant’Egidio are prayer, service, and friendship. Through an experience in Mozambique and Algeria, the Community realised at one point that it was able to serve peace, to help peace emerge when peace options seem very difficult. Today, fifteen or sixteen countries are actively followed by the Foundation for peace work. For example, we had meetings in Rome with delegates from South Soudan. We are also working in New York with exiled religious leaders from Burkina Faso, a country with difficult challenges, including violence. In this case, as in many other cases, we work with Catholics, of course, but also with protestants and Muslims. The idea is that communities of expatriates in a context like New York could serve the peace process in Burkina Faso.

So, the Sant’Egidio Foundation studies those cases and tries to explain how it happens that the Sant’Egidio Community is able to do this work, and more generally what it is to take peace vocationally. The Foundation is interested in helping people that would like to do more for peace by developing tools, programs of formation, and accompaniment. It is a new organization. I am very happy so far. Hopefully we will continue to grow.

CAPP-Canada: You spoke of peace as a vocation. As you know, we can find something similar in the Beatitudes, in which Jesus himself says « Blessed are the peacemakers ». Are Christians living up to this invitation? What about the Catholic Church as an institution?

The Church never stopped being a place where peace was possible and sought after. Just look at the monastic hospitality, the liturgical movement, Francis of Assisi … Always the Church has had peacemakers. But I still feel that peace is one of those words that Jesus said and embodied, but which it took a little while for us to hear, to receive. We always think that peace should be done by someone else, that the others are the ones doing wrong, that the others are the ones with the weapons, the ones creating the problems.

Now according to me the first step of a peacemaker is to relax, to step back a little bit, and to be interiorly willing to receive, to listen, to welcome. We can reason and talk, of course, and many warring factions are perfectly capable of explaining their behavior and tell you that violence is the only choice they have. But to encounter somebody that can listen, that is able to receive their anxiousness – this is already transformative. We had many cases of leaders committed to conflict and war that changed in conversation with friends from Sant’Egidio, and were willing to explore different options.

This why the Church should take very seriously its role to be a place where people can come and discuss, where people can consider options that would not have been considered otherwise. This is our experience in Sant’Egidio. The great majority of our work for peace really starts in friendship, in listening, in encountering somebody that is willing to talk.

So, the question for us today is how to receive John XXIII’s invitation to seek what unites rather than what divides. It is a very interesting invitation for us because the culture around us is very frequently oppositional and contentious.

CAPP-Canada: Isn’t it more difficult to listen and receive in an increasingly oppositional culture? What are we to do with what is called “woke culture” or “cancel culture,” which often consists of simply rejecting the opponents, before any talk can be done?

My understanding of this issue was enriched by a Canadian theologian, Bernard Lonergan, who stressed the importance of interiority. The reason for that is because we tend to generalize a little too soon. The first step is actually to get to the particular: to realize that I am who I am, and that you are who you are. You have a certain capacity, certain skills, you speak certain languages, and so on. It is the same, in my own way. I have my own history.

The shift we need is to try to take seriously the historical vocation that is pertinent to you as a particular person in a particular situation. Not only there is something divine in you, not only are you much more than what you think you are, but you also need to be very serious about this issue of what you see in yourself, because there are things that only you can do. This is true in your family, in your city, your nation, your network and so on. We need to be more attentive to interiority because it reveals our responsibility for shaping history.

So, even in an oppositional culture, we try not to be confrontational or judgmental. We should respond to this cancel culture by listening, listening, listening. At Sant’Egidio we spend a lot of time in prayer, welcoming people to a beautiful liturgy. We do believe that in the end, peace is a gift of the Spirit. It is something we need to be open to, rather than impose on others. This is the shift we need, to re-encounter the power of interiority, the power of an interiority that is open to the spirit.

CAPP-Canada: Is polarization or division always wrong? Can’t it be creative sometimes?

Well, this a complicated question! Indeed, Jesus himself was quite polarizing, and John the Baptist even more. The Church experienced polarization from the beginning. Paul didn’t become Paul because he was a nice guy, but because he was ready to stone Stephen. And when we read Paul, it is often not gentle, not soft. It’s not like everything must be flat, and equal. No, Christ called us to repentance. This is a polarizing invitation. It is not like a simple blessing.

Figures that changed history for the good were polarizing, such as Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Likewise, when we think of St. Francis of Assisi going to talk with the Muslim leader, it is hard to imagine how this could not be polarizing in that time. So I think we should be careful to avoid being overly protective, or shy in expressing what is good and what is right. Of course, we also need to be aware of the potential danger of any excessively strong or excessively affirmative positioning.

I can quickly mention the example of Nicolas of Flüe, patron saint of Switzerland and father of 10 children, who lived the last part of his life as a hermit. When the Cantons of Switzerland were about to go to war with each other again, a pastor took counsel with Nicolas. When the delegations received his message, the content of which is unknown to us today, the quarrels were laid aside. The result was the Swiss Confederation which is still there today. I like that a lay person, who is just praying, who is open to the Spirit, can find the right words, the right wording to keep people together, to protect peace. We should really invite each other into this responsibility. It is not first and foremost about right and wrong, but rather about what we can find together if we are truly open to the spirit.

CAPP-Canada. This an example of what you were saying earlier: that prayer and interiority are premises for peace. Is it because a praying person can give others a better knowledge of themselves and a better awareness of the situation in which they find themselves?

Totally. And this is what happens at Sant’Egidio. Peace is not always easy to express. You need to have a certain vocabulary. Your interiority must be open to find words that really reflect what is possible and good. If you are only doing war, how can you find the words for peace? Sometimes, wanting peace can get you killed by your own collaborators, because it seen as a betrayal. The space for peace is very tight, very difficult, and it is even more difficult if the conversation is public. 99% of what we do at Sant’Egidio is confidential. When you speak publicly, you have a different tone, you are heard in a different way. So, we do believe that the vocabulary of peace is better learnt by private tutoring than by public scolding.

CAPP-Canada: In his recent encyclical letter, entitled Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes about dialogue and social friendship. What is the perspective that Pope Francis is bringing on this issue? How does Fratelli Tutti contribute to Catholic Social Teaching?

I think we should appreciate Fratelli Tutti in the broad context of the world moving from small group identities to a humanity-as-a-whole identity. This revolution occurred when we started to speak about universal rights rather than civic rights or national rights, and the Catholic Church has a lot to do with that shift. The idea is that human dignity is for everybody, irrespective of your state boundaries. Also, solidarity is for and with everybody, not just those in my communities. And then, subsidiarity entails that acting and governing is a shared responsibility. These are the fundamental principles of the Catholic social teaching – human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity –, and this is a way for the Catholics to help humanity understands itself more properly, more precisely.

In this sense, the intuition that Fratelli Tutti shares is that there is no exception: we are all one, and we do need to be ready for this dimension. It invites us to express the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where she or he lives or comes from. Fundamentally, the principle is that everybody is human, everybody is connected.

CAPP-Canada : But is it not legitimate to be afraid to lose our particular identities or cultural traditions in that movement towards humanity? How can we reconcile this tension?

I honestly think that we all need to accept the fact that no identity is permanent, that every identity is always developing, is always changing. The same is true for a country, a church, and every human group. It might be good to remind ourselves that the author of the expression “Fratelli tutti,” St. Francis of Assisi, was also, among many things, a poet. He was the first poet to write in Italian, which at that time was a very low dialect. Latin was the language of the tradition, the important language. But Francis started making poetry in the language of the poor, of everybody. Well, he helped create a culture that in turn contributed to human life, to humanity. So why not reverse, in this way, the logic of identity? On that issue I think the Catholic theological approach is very good and very healthy when it speaks of vocation. Because if we are looking at ourselves as something that is already made and should be preserved, we look at our life in a certain way, a defensive way. But if we look at ourselves vocationally, we are assuming that the Spirit, the Lord of life, is calling us to something that is not already accomplished.

CAPP-Canada: And not something we possess.

Exactly. And in that sense the encounter with the other is as important as the encounter with my wife or my children. The other or the newcomer always is inviting me to a place where a future “us” is possible.

CAPP-Canada: In Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis writes : “reparation and reconciliation will give us new life and set us all free from fear.” Is there a place for reconciliation and forgiveness at the social and political levels? How can we make it happen?

Not only do I think that it is possible, but we know that it has happened. Collectively, humanity has gone through several moments when we were able to recognize wrongs of the past and reconcile. For that, the Church could play an important role in presenting the past as something open, something that can be explained, rather than something monolithic or something like a trauma that cannot be explained. There is a reservoir of hope in the Church that could really help humanity, as we become more aware of the historical responsibilities that we do bear. In this sense, it will be interesting to see what happens in Canada around the conversations with First Nations. As Canadians, you have a specific responsibility, and as Christian or Catholic Canadians.

We need to accept that, in this area of historical responsibility and reconciliation, we are still at the beginning. Often the pain, horror and trauma of the past are so overwhelming that we need to learn again how to say words that are truly meaningful and that can contribute to a genuine reconciliation. It is a question of learning how to speak and how to address some issues, but also how to engage with them. There is a human learning that comes from engaging with actual realities and actual people. What can we do? First, we should listen to Pope Francis saying that we are really “fratelli tutti,” brothers and sisters of everybody. And then we should ask: What can I do, given who I am? I do believe that in the end the Spirit is inviting us to connect and to engage.

CAPP-Canada: Dr. Bartoli, thank you very much for your time.


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