Ladies and Gentlemen,
To be here together with you means for me to experience a moment of special happiness because this opportunity was given to me by the invitation of the Patriarch Bartholomew whom I thank in a heartfelt way for having honoured us with his presence and also his preface to the book. This presentation is not in fact an extemporary initiative but, rather, it is located at the crossroads of two journeys. The first is connected with the figure of Emperor Constantine – the founder of this city – and his edict which ended the persecutions against Christians in the Roman Empire. This agreement, which constituted an initium, a dawn of religious freedom, was signed in Milan in the year 313 AD. Thus to commemorate the 1700th anniversary of this edict a series of initiatives have been organised in Milan and other cities of the world. Amongst these, the meeting with the Patriarch Bartholomew on 14 May 2013 was for me the most awaited and most important one, a visit which I am happy today to return. The second journey which brings me here is that of the Oasis Foundation which by now for ten years has been involved in promoting dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the context of that process that I call the ‘hybridisation of civilisations and cultures’. Oasis is known above all for its review and its newsletter, both published in a number of languages, but it has also published some books, amongst which translations of theological texts or texts relating to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church in Eastern languages. Thus, after two volumes published in Arabic, the Foundation ventured the step of a translation into Turkish, something which could be done solely because of the generous dedication of a number people, religious and lay, young and old, who worked together in this not easy task.
The book that we are presenting this evening was born in the context of the Pauline year which Catholics and Orthodox celebrated in 2008-2009. It contains the catechesis that the then Pontiff Benedict XVI dedicated to the figure of the Apostle to the Nations. The connection with Turkey is immediate and physical: Paul was born in Tarsus and made his first journey, and a large part of the second and the third, in present Turkey. The Pauline year had a significant impact on life in the country, giving a new impulse to religious tourism. Many people may have been led to ask themselves: ‘But who is this Paul who attracts so many people to the places of his life? What did he do?’ This book seeks to offer a primary answer, according to the faith of the Church. It should not be judged on the basis of its length. Indeed, it bears the unmistakeable marks of a great theologian who was able to condensate in a few lines the outcome of extensive research. Because, as is known, it is more difficult to write one page of in-depth summary that is accessible to everyone than to produce ten specialist pages only for experts in the field.
However that the protagonist of this book is the apostle Paul is first of all providential because of the ecumenical dimension that this choice inevitably brings with it. Indeed, the text leads us directly to the heart of faith by demonstrating an important truth: Christians do not come together first and foremost to claim in a better way or with greater force certain rights but, rather, to thank the Lord for ‘the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’. The first concern of ecumenism is not politics, making voices agree so as to be more vocal in our requests, but, rather, theological: the search for unity between Christians springs from faith itself. It is thus a very fine thing that the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Milan have come together, on the occasion of the 1700th anniversary of the edict, to uphold the civil value of religious freedom which should always be reaffirmed, in particular as regards its public dimension. But it is also a very fine thing that today they are meeting around that experience of faith from which attention to religious freedom also descends. In this way ‘commitment to a unity which helps [others] to accept Jesus Christ can no longer be a matter of mere diplomacy or forced compliance’. This emphasis also removes any element of doubt that non-Christians – in our case our Muslim friends – might nurture as regards the purpose of our ecumenical activity. It is an exchange of gifts and not the search for a strategic alliance. And for the further reason that every time that ecumenism between Catholics and Orthodox has been conceived against someone it has not lasted the test of time.
Although the figure of St. Paul is thus a permanent source of inspiration on which all Christians – Catholics, Orthodox and Evangelicals – can constantly draw, one has to recognise with realism that it is, instead, a reason for divergence in the relationship with Muslims. Many of them look with suspicion at the work of Saul, who is by no means rarely accused of a radical alteration of the early Christian message. One should acknowledge this divergence with intellectual honesty but at the same time one should also remember the need, if dialogue is to be authentic, to exchange with the wholeness of the different religious experiences. If, that is to say, the Christians of all confessions (more than a billion faithful) agree in seeing Paul as a central figure in their faith, whoever wants to know about Christianity has to deal with his writings. I will give an opposing example which should help us to understand the point. As Christians we perceive a special harmony with Islamic mystic literature, which values the personal relationship with a God who is near and to a certain extent accessible because Lover. We read to our advantage certain passages from the Mathnawi of Mevlana Rumi or certain poems of al-Hallaj. But if we were to say that Islam is only Rumi and al-Hallaj, forgetting the contribution of the men of Law and the scholars of the Hadith, we would end up by creating for ourselves a deformed picture of the Islamic religion and of what Muslims habitually believe in. In other words, to achieve a serious cultural dialogue I cannot choose certain authors with whom I feel in harmony, deliberately forgetting about others who are more problematic for me, but, rather, I have to provide myself with an overall vision of the phenomenon I am exploring, possibly using those authors that are closest to my sensibility as a door to accede to those that are most remote. Thus, in specular fashion, if I want to understand Christianity I cannot disregard Paul. And I cannot neglect him if I want to understand Western philosophy, Western history, Western art or even Western politics. As Evangelii Gaudium observes: ‘In order to sustain dialogue [...], suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others’. Only in this way can we make an effective contribution to that dialogue between cultures which is so urgent today.
Paul constitutes a special challenge. He was fond of the traditions of the Fathers, ready to defend them with his life, but also to persecute those who, in his way of seeing things, endangered them. Anybody who diminishes the seriousness of the commitment of Saul to the school of Gamaliel understands nothing about the search for the Face of God through following the Law and subjection to it, which is one of the most radical experiences for the religious conscience of man in all epochs. But specifically for this reason the question is posed more strongly: what did Paul encounter which was so powerful as to lead him to go beyond this approach, almost to overturn it, launching himself head first in a missionary activity that had no boundaries and which was decisive in opening up the Church to the universal dimension? This is a question that deserves to be explored.
There is also – I believe – a third specific reason for the interest of Islam. Indeed, from a historical point of view, Paul was the first great theoriser of the distinction between the letter and the spirit of a holy text. For him, the exterior meaning was insuperable (indeed he was not a Gnostic), yet at the same time it required to be vivified by an interior experience, ‘for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Cor 3:6). As is known, a similar pair of concepts was also developed by Islamic exegesis of the Quran and according to many contemporary Muslim thinkers such a distinction is fundamental to fully conjugate Islam with modernity. These are ideas that are often repeated but rarely explored as much as they deserve. I thus think that a serious taking into consideration of Paul’s tandem of ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ could be very useful for the debate that is underway in Islam, in particular in a country such as Turkey where scholarly research, in the theological field as well, is very advanced.
By these brief observations I hope that I have communicated to you the reasons that have led to this initiative. It is the first timid step. We hope that others can follow. An opportunity for ecumenical encounter and a moment of cultural dialogue, this book opens up before us a large pathway which we ask God to be able to follow with joy and trust, together with all those who want to share it. Thank you.
I was explored these subjects in Non dimentichiamoci di Dio (Rizzoli, Milan, 2013).
Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas est, n. 1; Francis, Evangelii gaudium, n. 7.
Francis, Evangelii gaudium, n. 246.
Jalal al Din Rumi, Mathnaw. Il poema del misticismo universale, edited by Gabriele Mandel Khan, 6 vols. (Bompiani, Milan, 2006).
Al-Hallâj, Il Cristo dell’Islam. Scritti mistici, edited by A. Ventura (Mondadori, Milan, 2007).
Evangelii Gaudium, n. 253.