In late May Finland’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs organized a seminar on “Religious Freedom: Protecting Religious Minorities” in cooperation with Finn Church Aid, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, and the Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers. This seminar was part of a two-day conference organized by the international network Historians Without Borders with the aim to further public discussion about history and to promote the use of historical knowledge for peace-building and conflict resolution.
The seminar, which focused on the role of religions and faith-based actors in peace-building and the prevention of violent extremism, included a keynote address by Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Other participants included Finnish Minister for Foreign Affairs Timo Soini and Archbishop Kari Mäkinen, the current head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.
In his address, Cardinal Turkson started by acknowledging the crucial role of memory and history in the development of legislation and ethics, and even as a point of reference for relationship with God and with one another.
From this point of view, Cardinal Turkson went on, the Catholic Church has much experience to offer, due to her own lengthy history.
“The Church has always experienced a re-reading of history in order to understand and to re-direct her actions as she journeys on in the world,” the cardinal said. For example, the “Second Vatican Council became a moment for the Church to re-read her past history, in the light of which she decided to set new trajectories along which to travel.”
These new trajectories are captured in the Vatican II document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, Cardinal Turkson said. In this document, “the Church decided then to establish a new relationship with humanity,” exactly in line with Pope John XXIII’s hopes for the Council’s proceedings: “He wanted the windows of the Church to be thrown open so that the world outside can see into the Church and so that the Church can see the world outside.”
In the wake of those efforts, Pope Paul VI, in his encyclical Populorum Progressio (“On the development of peoples”), “redefined peace in terms of development and he said that the new name of peace was development,” according to Cardinal Turkson. And these concepts are closely intertwined, he explained, since development is not possible without peace or a peaceful environment.
The papacy of John Paul II also signaled a new re-visiting of memory and tradition, which paved the way for reconciliation and peace-building, Cardinal Turkson explained, pointing specifically to the historical cases of Galileo and the Inquisition. In these cases John Paul spoke about “purifying memory”; we need not only to preserve history and build up memory, but there are times when particular incidents need to be revisited, re-interpreted, and sometimes even corrected, including asking for pardon when necessary.
“Speaking about painful history and purification of memory, how could we then forget another move that Pope John Paul II made when he visited Senegal?” Cardinal Turkson continued. Here the Holy Father begged for forgiveness from above for the slave trade, the victims of which were brothers and sisters destined to be recipients of the Gospel. Yet another example of this “purification” was Pope Francis’ trip to Bolivia in June 2015, when he asked for pardon for every abuse suffered by the indigenous population with the arrival of Europeans there.
This, according to Cardinal Turkson, is the experience of the Church: revisiting memories to purify them, always with a view of better integration of the Church with society. From time to time changing circumstances invite us to revisit these memories and then re-evaluate them, but we must avoid the temptation to apply current values to the assessment of past events. The desire must always be to find the truth about what happened, and then to see how this can be integrated into the present, on-going life of the community.
This model, influenced by Christian faith, can contribute in many ways to a path to peace and reconciliation between peoples, Cardinal Turkson said. But other factors are also needed for an effective reconciliation: “the need to recognize the established misconduct, the promise not to repeat them and to repair the damage that arises from them, and to promote a culture that repels the germs that produced the same evils in the past and recognize clearly the movement ahead.”
The cardinal concluded his talk by drawing attention to what Pope Francis said last month upon being awarded the prestigious Charlemagne Prize for his contributions to the building of European peace and solidarity. On that occasion the Pope appealed to the culture of dialogue, saying that it urges victims and victors to come together, so that through reconciliation and bridge-building we ultimately promote the well-being of the human family.
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