World Public Forum as a “Field Hospital”?

A Speech by Fred Dallmayr, Co-chairman, WPF “Dialogue of Civilizations“, prepared for the Closing Plenary Meeting of the 11th Rhodes Forum

We are again at the end of a Rhodes Forum, and we are about to say “farewell.”  But I want to suggest:  we are not so much at an end, but at a new beginning.The Rhodes meeting is in a way a high point, a collective celebration.  We talk a lot at the meeting about justice, good will, and peace.  But what is important is not so much what we say here but what we do after the meeting, when we go back “into the world.”

The Rhodes Forum is like a Sunday service when many people are (or pretend to be) pious.  But the real test comes during the week, during the often grey and difficult week days when our convictions are put to the test.  In a way, what matters is that we carry our commitment to justice, to dialogue, to peace out into the world—which can be very challenging.

At an earlier meeting, I put the Rhodes Forum under the patronage of St. Francis, the poor man (poverello) from Assissi.  You remember his prayer:

“Lord make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, healing.”

Today we have a new Francis, the pontiff in Rome, who likes to walk in the footsteps of the “poverello.”  For me, the important thing is not his status, his place at the top of the Vatican hierarchy, but what he does.  Well, he does many things; but I want to lift up one thing he did recently.

A month ago, at the beginning of September (on Friday and Saturday, September 6 and 7), the International Coordinating Committee of the World Public Forum met in Vienna.  We met at a very dark moment, at the precipice of a disaster, a possible major war.  The American President had declared that the “red line” in Syria had been crossed and that America was going to attack Syria in the very near future.

Our Committee was duly alarmed and we adopted a resolution (which you can find on our website) saying that “we condemn firmly the use of chemical weapons by any party in the conflict, but we also condemn with equal firmness any outside military intervention and the shipment of arms to Syria.”  Of course, we knew that our resolution was not likely to stop anything, least of all a powerful military machine.

Enter Pope Francis.  The pontiff declared Sunday, October 8, a day of “prayer for world peace.”  Prayer meetings were held in many parts of the world; in Rome there was a gathering of half a million people.  On Monday we learned—the world learned—that a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis had been proposed by Russia and that the proposal had been favorably received in Washington (at least in principle).

I do not wish to claim that there was a cause-and-effect relation between the prayer Sunday and the diplomacy.  This cause-and-effect formula is a scientific way of speaking; but I think the most important things happen in a different register, on a different level.  Certainly, we need to work, to struggle, to strive for a better world.  But (as I said last year) we are not “the owners of the world.”  We are at best custodians.  The poverello knew about that.

As a corollary of the diplomatic breakthrough, other things have happened:  a possible thaw in the relations between Washington and Tehran, a possible relaxation of the intense hostility prevailing between these countries for a so many years.

A new aura of “goodwill” among people is in the air:  the clenched fists are giving way, perhaps, to handshakes—at first perhaps timidly, haltingly, inhibited by mutual suspicions, but slowly gaining in strength through the cultivation of trust and confidence.

Here our World Public Forum comes in.  As I see it, we are supposed to be trust-builders, confidence-builders.  Certainly we cannot engineer or fabricate a better world.  But we can be active in removing distrust, defusing hostility, by being active as healers and mediators.

Pope Francis recently compared the church to a “field hospital” for the wounded, the lost and persecuted.  This is also the main task of our World Public Forum—which, of course, is not a church but comprises many cultures, many different religions and worldviews.  Yet, the task is still to be a “field hospital” in our wounded world.

Another way to think about our World Public Forum (I like to think about it this way) is in terms of a new “ordination”:  membership in a new worldly “order” (distantly resembling Franciscans) committed to global justice and peace.  Members of the Forum are like missionaries going out into the world, not to preach or disseminate an ideology but simply to light everywhere the candles of good will, that is, to bring hope to the downcast and persecuted.

So, going out from here, let us help lighting these candles, contribute to loosening clenched fists by extending our hands in friendship.  Here is an old Irish poem or blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you,
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warmly upon your face,
and rains fall softly upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.