A STUDY OF TWO CASES IN THE LIGHT OF THE SOCIAL TEACHING OF THE CHURCH
The Spirituality of Nonviolence in Pacem in Terris
In Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), John XXIII shows himself to be a profound expert of the spirituality of nonviolence, for example when he affirms that the search for Truth is an element of permanent relationship and communion between God and man: “Besides, there exists in man’s very nature an undying capacity to break through the barriers of error and seek the road to truth. God, in His great providence, is ever present with His aid. Today, maybe, a man lacks faith and turns aside into error; tomorrow, perhaps, illumined by God’s light, he may indeed embrace the truth’ (PT 158).
Here the Pope is affirming that, on the one hand, man – by his nature – is open to the Truth; on the other hand, God continues to act in our conscience as a force for Truth, and therefore it is always possible for every human being – no matter how sunk in error – to be open to the light of truth.
We must not forget that John XXIII said these things in a climate of extreme ideological opposition between Marxism and the “Christian” capitalist West. All the more surprising, therefore, is this trust in the action of Truth in the heart of every man, which led the Pope to overcome all feelings of intransigence and intolerance towards the alleged enemy of the Church. For, in his view, the Truth is far greater – and wiser – than all our petty ideological schemes, and knows how to produce good fruits where our prejudices would not expect to find any chance of a good harvest.
This is why the Pope states that we must always “distinguish between error as such and the person who falls into error—even in the case of men who err regarding the truth or are led astray as a result of their inadequate knowledge, in matters either of religion or of the highest ethical standards. A man who has fallen into error does not cease to be a man. He never forfeits his personal dignity; and that is something that must always be taken into account.” (PT 158).
The same distinction that John XXIII makes – on an individual level – between the mistaken and the errant, he then makes – on a social level – between atheist ideologies and the political movements that are in some way inspired by them. This distinction is always based on an extreme trust in the dynamic action of the Truth, because “the philosophic formula does not change once it has been set down in precise terms, but the undertakings clearly cannot avoid being influenced to a certain extent by the changing conditions in which they have to operate.” (PT 159).
In other words, even members of atheist political parties can listen to the voice of truth, and so these movements can evolve and move more and more towards this truth. This is why – said John XXIII, shocking some – in the common love of truth it is possible to establish collaborative relationships between Catholics and non-Catholics, for “in the attainment of economic, social, cultural and political advantages” (PT 160) that are honest and useful to the true good of the community.
This trust in the action of truth makes the Pope affirm that peace and disarmament are a goal that “can be achieved for it is a thing which not only is dictated by common sense, but is in itself most desirable and most fruitful of good” (PT 113). This is why the “good Pope”, with great simplicity, calls for “a cessation to the arms race” and affirms that “nuclear weapons must be banned.” (PT 112), since it seems to him that these are reasonable objectives that a policy inspired by the Gospel – or simply by human reason – can and must achieve.
This brings us to the most prophetic element of Pacem in Terris. Prior to this encyclical, peace had been considered – by the Magisterium – a desirable but unattainable goal in relations between states. Hence the legitimisation of a double standard for interpersonal life and international politics, with the legitimisation of the ‘just war’, seen as an inevitable lesser evil. John XXIII, on the other hand, thanks to his faith in the universal action of Truth, succeeded in overcoming this theological pattern that had prevailed for many centuries. According to the Pope, in fact, “The idea that men, by the fact of their appointment to public office, are compelled to lay aside their own humanity, is quite inconceivable” (PT 82). And the human condition is characterised – first and foremost – by its natural orientation towards Truth. This is why it is necessary to establish as an inalienable principle that “mutual ties between States must be governed by truth” (PT 86). In other words, ‘the same law of nature that governs the life and conduct of individuals must also regulate the relations of political communities with one another”. (PT 80)
The same law of love for one’s enemies and renunciation of the sword must apply to both interpersonal relations and relations between political communities.
As a consequence of what has been said so far, the Pope goes so far as to affirm the impossibility – rational and moral – of justifying any kind of war: “in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice” (PT 127). The English “makes no longer sense” translates a very strong expression from the original Latin “a ratione alienum”, i.e. “alien to reason”. Therefore, for the “good Pope’, to claim that in the age of ballistic missiles and atomic weapons the conditions of a ‘just war’ can still be met is something alien to reason, something that only the ‘mentally ill’ could support.
THE MARCH OF 500 “UNARMED” ACTIVISTS IN SERAJEVO IN 1992
After the death of Tito, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia underwent a process of dissolution that led to the war that began in 1991. At that time I was a layman living in Italy. It was a novelty for Italy to have a war on its doorstep. Official politics seemed powerless to deal with this conflict. Then some people and civil associations asked themselves: faced with the impotence of politicians, can we, as members of civil society, do anything to try and oppose this war?
In particular, the movement “Blessed are the Peacemakers” (BPM), led by Don Albino Bizzotto in Padua, started to think about an initiative for non-violent intervention in the war zone. It was a proposal for popular diplomacy.
By popular diplomacy’we mean a non-violent initiative at the international level that starts from the bottom, from civil society. In this sense, popular diplomacy could be considered a form of civil disobedience to official diplomacy, i.e. to the inaction of the government itself in the face of a serious situation of violence experienced by another people. During the war in the former Yugoslavia, many ordinary citizens of neighbouring nations began to doubt the capabilities of their professional diplomats and looked with suspicion at the ease with which destructive weapons reached the former Yugoslavia via their own country. This, in effect, pointed to possible complicity between the government itself, arms dealers and Yugoslav warlords. Thus, in December 1992, 500 non-violent activists from several European countries entered – in a non-violent interposition initiative – the besieged Serbian martyr city of Sarajevo.
The conflict in the former Yugoslavia pitted three ethnic groups against each other: Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. In particular, Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, was under siege by the Serbs, who controlled land movements into the city. The besieged capital was practically isolated. Due to the shortage of supplies, most of the population had lost 10-15 kilos.
The main objective of these pacifists, therefore, was to break – at least for a few days – the siege of Sarajevo, where the population, completely isolated from the rest of the world, lived in a kind of enormous extermination camp. Many in Italy and Europe tried to dissuade these pacifists, pointing out that going to Sarajevo in the middle of the war meant risking one’s life in a stupid way.
The previous year, some Italian air force pilots had risked their lives in the Gulf War (and two of them had been captured by Iraqis). Why, these pacifists asked, do you accept that soldiers risk their lives to participate in a war, but consider it completely irrational that some Christians risk their lives for peace? Risking one’s life to go and kill other people seems reasonable, but risking something for the gospel of peace seems absurd.
Eventually the pacifists, travelling by bus, managed to get into Sarajevo. Fr Giulio Battistella, one of the participants, commented: “They told us we were crazy because to go to Sarajevo we had to pass through territory controlled by the Serbs, those who bombed the Bosnians in Sarajevo. We could have said to the Serbs: “Let us pass, we want to be in solidarity with your enemies”. It seemed impossible, but that’s what happened: the Serbs let us enter the city. This adventure showed that there can be a link between politics and utopia. The limit of what is politically feasible and possible can go beyond what we think: we must try, we must risk something for peace. As John XXIII said, those who err are still people, in whom God has inscribed the Law of Truth; it is possible to dialogue with them too; this was a very clear example.
But there was a problem: the 500 entered Sarajevo when it was already dark, at 4.30 in the afternoon in December, and the United Nations, present in the city, had established a curfew from 2 pm. At night, no one lit a light so as not to attract the attention of the numerous snipers. But on that occasion, several people lit a light in their windows to welcome these people who had come from afar to give a message of peace and solidarity. As Monsignor Tonino Bello, who participated in the initiative, said: “While the UN of governments decrees curfews, the UN of peoples walks to meet the besieged city”. Non-violent people’s diplomacy succeeded in going beyond what official diplomacy decreed. The people who lit a candle risked their lives, attracting the attention of snipers, but wanted to take this risk as a sign of gratitude to the 500 volunteers.
The next day, a peace march was organised through the streets of the Bosnian capital, followed by a meeting in the city theatre. The march was attended by representatives of the three ethnic groups present in Sarajevo: Bosnians, Croats and Serbs.
Tonino Bello spoke prophetic and moving words: ‘We must show the way to the land where the wolf and the lamb will eat together. If we believers do not have these high expectations of the Gospel and the Bible, what are we here to do? These forms of utopia, these dreams we must promote; if we do not, what are our communities? They are only the notaries of the status quo, and not the prophetic sentries announcing new heavens, new earth, new worlds. These ideas will one day flourish. The armies of tomorrow are these: unarmed men and women”.
Of course this initiative – perhaps the first of its kind – did not put an end to the war, but it left a deep mark on public opinion because it opened up new perspectives, showing a new space for action for civil society. Don Battistella, one of those who went to Sarajevo, commented: “Rekindling hope, that is the meaning of this initiative. Like a match, which gives light for a moment and then goes out, but leaves its smoke. And these small flames can show us unsuspected paths to follow. In other words, this initiative was like a small flame that gave us a glimpse of new possibilities, new paths to follow”.
After the 500 left the city, the BPM opened a permanent presence in Sarajevo, organising various types of services for the population. One of these was the organisation of a minimal international mail service, to maintain contact between those who had remained in the city and their relatives who had left the country. A group of volunteers from Padua received the letters and, via UN planes, sent them to Sarajevo. There, some BPM volunteers worked as postmen, personally going to deliver the letters, always under the threat of snipers, to the recipients. One volunteer gave this testimony: “I took the letter to an old lady. She opened the letter and cried with emotion. “It is from my son”, she said. “I thought he was already dead, but now he writes to me that he is in Vienna, he is alive! Today is my birthday: you could not give me a better present than this: to know that my son is alive. Thank you! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!”
Don Bizzotto commented: “Seeing people who come from other countries not to kill (like mercenaries) or to sell weapons, but to be with people, to play with children, to help better organise the camp for displaced people… shows that in this world there are not only people who shoot, hate and kill. The presence of the non-violent volunteer thus becomes a sign of hope for the victims of war”.
These organised interventions by ordinary citizens are legitimised by international law. For example, according to the UN’s 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the individual has certain duties towards others and towards the community to which he or she belongs, and must endeavour to promote and respect the rights recognised in this covenant1. Civil society, therefore, has the right – almost the duty – to promote political action for peace.
Another UN Declaration – the 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders – further legitimises these initiatives of popular diplomacy, affirming that everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to engage in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.2 Other articles of the same Declaration speak of the freedom to assemble and demonstrate inside and outside one’s own country. This definitively legitimises the political action of civil society, at the international level, in defence of human rights.
Thus, in a Declaration of 28 October 2001, some non-violent movements and some Italian missionary Institutes issued this statement regarding the situation in Congo and contemplating the possibility of organising another non-violent intervention: “We often think we are too small to face such big problems, and we give up acting, because only the powerful can decide. Yet we know how important we are to the people we love. We too, like so many, feel in difficulty, but we trust in this strength that is in the heart of each one of us. So far, merchandises have imposed their laws, but we believe in the strength of the encounter between peoples, in their overriding right to peace, and that is why we want to walk together…. We are aware that the responsibility for the reconciliation and pacification of peoples is also ours, and we do not want to delegate to others the task of building and safeguarding peace”3. With these words, these associations and missionary Institutes want to reaffirm the right-duty of civil society to take care of the wellbeing and peace of other brother peoples, without delegating everything to governments that are often inert, and without using such “delegation” as a pretext to justify our indifference.
Today we talk about the importance of overcoming indifference to justify armed interventions, presented as humanitarian interference. Hardly anyone talks about the need to overcome indifference with a form of non-violent intervention. Only this would be a true humanitarian intervention.
Bernard Häring, in his prophetic vision, dreamed that entire peoples would opt for the culture and practice of non-violence. These peoples, he thought, could open up new perspectives for the whole of humanity, offering it the Archimedes’ lever with which the seemingly immovable culture of violence could be shifted and overturned. Peoples who renounced armies and opted for civil defence and diplomacy of peoples would, according to the German theologian, exercise a very important “missionary action on the whole of humanity, as we have seen, for example, in the worldwide influence of Mahatma Gandhi”4.
ITALY, INTERCULTURAL SPACES OF SELF-NARRATION
The second and third experience that I would like to present to you show another facet of the non-violent commitment to peace, which includes – as Pacem in Terris emphasises – breaking down all kinds of divisive barriers and promoting the embrace of all peoples: “may Christ inflame the desires of all men to break through the barriers which divide them, to strengthen the bonds of mutual love, to learn to understand one another, and to pardon those who have done them wrong. Through His power and inspiration may all peoples welcome each other to their hearts as brothers, and may the peace they long for ever flower and ever reign among them.” (PT 171)
To build peace it is necessary to reach out, to remove the barriers that prevent us from meeting each other and to create spaces in which mutual understanding can be fostered.
Pope Francis takes up this concept in his Message for the 2017 World Day of Peace, where he expresses the hope that charity and non-violence will guide the way we treat each other in interpersonal, social and international relationships. We could say that relationship and encounter are another name for nonviolence, or rather, they are its foundation. Nonviolence, in essence, is feeling a deep relationship with our brothers and sisters and with nature; it is respect for every living being, to whom we feel intimately connected. Renunciation of violence is a natural consequence of this way of being.
Thus, to indicate non-violence, Gandhi used the term satyagraha, which is the “power of truth”, the awareness of the profound truth that constitutes the human being, who is essentially a being in relationship. In this sense, satyagraha is also the force of love, that disposition of benevolence towards everything that lives, towards everything with which we are intimately intertwined. Nonviolence, then, is the power of relationship and the awareness of this power.
John XXIII said that peace (and nonviolence) has four pillars: truth, justice, freedom and love. Love, in the biblical sense, is the relationship that has reached its stage of fulfilment: when the bond deepens to such an extent that we feel the other’s pain and hope in our gut, so that we are not happy if our brother is not happy. The sacred bond that constitutes us as human beings thus reaches its full realisation.
In this perspective, the opposite of non-violence is non-relationship, or rather, what I call the Great Disconnection: that numbness that makes us lose awareness of being intertwined and makes us completely indifferent to the lives of others. And so, when the power of relationship dies in us, the way is opened to all forms of violence and perversion, both in interpersonal life and in social and political life. An important tool for building peace, therefore, is to cultivate relationships and create spaces of encounter.
“Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter. (…) This also means finding ways to include those on the peripheries of life. For they have another way of looking at things; they see aspects of reality that are invisible to the centres of power where weighty decisions are made”. (FT 215)
“To speak of a ‘culture of encounter’ means that we, as a people, should be passionate about meeting others, seeking points of contact, building bridges, planning a project that includes everyone”. (FT 216).
“Social peace demands hard work, craftsmanship. (…) What is important is to create processes of encounter, processes that build a people that can accept differences. Let us arm our children with the weapons of dialogue! Let us teach them to fight the good fight of the culture of encounter!” (FT 217).
From these concerns was born the initiative that I will now present to you, but let us proceed in order:
From Ecuador to Italy
In 2010 I had just returned to Italy after eleven years in Latin America, called to serve in the Comboni Youth Ministry in Padua. Still disoriented in front of an Italian reality that I found very different from the one I remembered, I was fascinated to see that Padua was then a multicultural town, characterised by the presence of over 100 ethnic groups. And I realised that certain problems experienced in Ecuador are also experienced today in Italy, albeit in a very different context.
Ecuador is a multicultural country made up of different ethnic groups: indigenous, Afro-Ecuadorians (descendants of African slaves) and mestizos (mixed race), who make up the majority. The problem is that so far this multiculturalism has worked almost only in one sense: for example, blacks know everything about white and mestizo culture and spirituality, because that is what they learn at school, in church and on television. But “what do most Ecuadorians know about the soul and spirit of the black people?”, an Afro-descendant sociologist wondered years ago.
The main pastoral challenge, therefore, is to create an effective coexistence between the different peoples that make up the multi-ethnic reality of the country, in which each one is valued in its human and cultural beauty. The Latin American Bishops also reflected on this in the Aparecida document (2007), in which, after denouncing the discrimination still suffered by ethnic minorities, they wrote: “A mentality of less respect for Indigenous peoples and Afro-Americans continues. Therefore, the decolonisation of minds and knowledge and the strengthening of intercultural spaces and relations are indispensable conditions for the affirmation of the full citizenship of these peoples”. I believe that these recommendations also apply – mutatis mutandis – to the Italian reality, and can be summarised as follows:
a) Decolonising our minds and, I would add, decolonising our hearts means radically changing the way we see these ‘other’ peoples living among us. We must value the point of view of these minority cultures and form pastoral agents to help us do so.
b) We must create spaces of inter-cultural understanding, where everyone feels valued, listened to and loved.
c) Through these spaces for listening to each other, the awareness of having a common destiny grows and the cultural foundations for an effective and full citizenship of these peoples are laid.
A Sace To Tell Our Stories and Listen To Each Oher
So, seeing that even in Padua it was necessary to face this challenge, I asked myself: with what small sign, what small gesture could we try to involve young people in this process?
My experience in Latin America has taught me that a small gesture is more beautiful and more effective if we develop it within small apostolic communities and if we let ourselves be guided by the insights that the Spirit awakens in the hearts of the people we accompany. Thus a small group of six young people was formed, with whom we started a movie club to spark sharing and reflection on the theme “Being Young in a Multicultural Society.” Among the films we watched there was Freedom Writers, which is about a school in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in Los Angeles. In the discussion that followed the screening of the film, Emmanuel, a Congolese student, said: “In the University canteens in Padua what you see in the film often happens: we are physically present in the same room with people of different origins. But the Africans almost always eat amongst themselves, the Italians also: we are close but divided by invisible barriers. In short, there is no space where we can share our difficulties and hopes in simplicity”. In the speeches that followed, this idea emerged: is this space missing? Then we can create it: a space where young people from different countries can talk to each other and exchange experiences freely. And so, among all of us, the idea of creating Youth and Intercultural Spaces of Self-narration was born.
The coordinating team of the group described the initiative as follows: “It is about taking up the challenge of interculturality and creating spaces where young people from different countries can tell their stories, share their experiences, talk about their lives, their difficulties and their dreams. We are convinced that meeting to listen to each other is a first step towards the formation of a fraternal and just intercultural society. In our society there is less and less time to listen to each other, and it was nice to see the interest with which so many young people responded to the initiative, which we then implemented in collaboration with the Diocesan University Centre of Padua.
How Others See Us
Concretely, each meeting starts with a dinner where everyone shares some food. Emmanuel explained that in his culture, eating together creates a nice atmosphere of familiarity that opens up dialogue. After the meal, three young people from different countries talk about their experience on a specific topic and then there is a discussion among all the young people present. Among the topics discussed, I recall: “Daily life in a multi-religious society”, “Young people’s dreams in the face of the crisis”, “Human relations today”, “Disaffection for political commitment”, etc.
The main feature of these meetings is that they are not ‘scientific’ conferences led by “experts” or scholars. We want to know how these issues are experienced by ordinary people in their daily lives.
Obviously it is difficult to summarise in short the richness of all these meetings. Among the various speakers, I remember three Africans in particular. At the meeting on the dreams of young people, Mamadou, a young man from the Ivory Coast, said: ‘Here in Italy we complain, we dream, we fret…. In Africa, on the other hand, you first accept reality and start from this reality: there is a big mess outside, is there a problem? I don’t get anxious, I take the situation philosophically. In Italy there is racism, it’s true, but I don’t worry about it, because in Italy I have also encountered a lot of goodness. You have a lot of time to ask yourselves “what should we do” and to work out your dreams. We, on the other hand, first start doing, and then dreams appear and grow along the way….’.
Wivine, a young Congolese woman, said during the meeting dedicated to human relations: “I have no money, but I have a lot of humanity, which helps me face difficulties. And I feel that African humanity is a great gift and a great resource, even for the Western world today. Forgive my frankness, but I believe there is nothing more beautiful in the world than an African family. My grandmother had 52 grandchildren, and we competed to take care of her in the last years of her life, when she was not self-sufficient: I did it for three years, and it was a joy for me. She told me many stories, stories of her country: it was from her that I learnt the values that still keep me going today and make me the person I am. Here in Italy, however, I see that the elderly are neglected: a holiday is more important than a visit to grandma. But if an elderly person feels discarded by his family in the last years of his life, this pain could erase even the beautiful memory of the previous years lived together.
You say that there is now a crisis in Italy, and that unfortunately some people have committed suicide for this reason. Well, I was born in the crisis, but I have never thought of committing suicide, because I have my family to support me. And above all I have faith: faith in God always supports me. Often in Africa you live day by day, and you try to give joy to the people around you. With this attitude I was able to overcome the crisis I have lived in since I was born and to face various difficulties here in Italy. African humanity helped me to live and overcome the crisis. African humanity can also help Europe overcome the crisis”.
In another meeting, in which three women of different religions spoke about their spirituality, Naima, a Tunisian, confessed that she suffers a lot when she sees young people, also from her country, on the streets smoking and selling drugs. “I cannot sit idly by. I know that God – Allah – has other plans for these young people, he does not want them to continue using and dealing drugs for the rest of their lives: there are other potentials that God has put in them, and I have to help them develop them. So I approach them and talk to them…”. Naima, a mother of three, has taken in another young person into her home, precisely because she wants to prevent this boy from getting lost. In this meeting it was beautiful to see that God’s mercy works in a similar way in the hearts of people of different religions.
With Homeless People
Another thing Latin America taught me is that we can plan initiatives in a certain way, but then God – through some encounter or unexpected event – causes us to change our planning. In fact, I thought this initiative was only for young people, but then a young man invited some homeless people we had met in our pastoral activity to participate in these meetings. Thus, the self-narartion meetings also became a space for mutual listening between categories of people who do not usually meet: Italians and foreigners, university students and homeless adults, etc. In our society, barriers have been created between different categories of people. There can only be peace if we can remove these barriers (PT: remove barriers. FT: build bridges).
Small big gestures
This initiative took place in a political context in which some xenophobic parties champion “security” and see the poor and foreigners as the main opponent to be fought. But in a multi-racial society, true security is built through encounters, hospitality, eating together and dialogue, creating a climate of mutual trust. We are called upon to multiply these spaces and initiatives. Of course, they are small gestures but, as the poet said, of small things great things are made.
One of the last self-narration meetings was organised with the Arising Africans group, an association of young Afro-Italians. Here are the testimonies of two of them.
Angela: “I am Angela, I am 21 years old, I was born in a small town in the province of Vicenza, my parents were born in Ghana. Some people are surprised that when I introduce myself I never say that I am Italian, nor that I am from Ghana, but only that I was born in Italy and that my parents are from Ghana. The fact is that I am neither, or rather, I am both, I am Afro-Italian. It was not easy for me to identify myself as Afro-Italian: my childhood was not easy, I was a victim of racism, especially psychological racism, and for many years I thought I would never be considered Italian. This is how a resentment towards “whites” grew in me. As a victim of racism, I also became racist and my only weapons to move forward were violence and self-isolation. In many places that I perceived as hostile I isolated myself and felt that I was not accepted there, because I was different, I was black, and I had no right to be with them.
Behind the eyes of many white people I felt a contempt for me, and so I feared and hated them, and I believed that a true friendship between a white person and a black person would not be possible. I thought that if someone tried to be my friend, they did it for two reasons: either out of pity or because someone – for example the teacher – had suggested it to them. When I arrived in Padua, I was amazed. I remember when I first went to the University canteen, a white girl asked me if she could sit next to me, and I was amazed: nothing like that had ever happened to me. And my surprise increased when she started talking to me as an equal. It may seem like a minor episode to you, but for me it was one of the many small events that made me what I am today: I am no longer racist, but proudly Afro-Italian.
At University I met several people. I rediscovered my African roots. It is important to know your roots, because how can you move forward if you don’t know who you are?
I am part of the Arising Africans group because I believe in the concept of awareness. Having a place where you can speak, live, be understood and accepted as an African is important. Because knowing your own culture helps you to walk in the world. Some people think that we are in an “either-inside-or-out” system: if you learn Italian culture you have to unlearn African culture; instead cultures should follow the logic of “inside-both”: we should create an inter-culture. Being Afro-Italian means being both African and Italian. It took me a long time to understand this, but now I am proud of my Afro-Italianness’.
Ada: “My name is Ada, I am Nigerian, Afro-Italian and I am a dreamer. Arising Africans is a project that was set up in May 2015 with the intention of bringing together young people of African/Afro-Italian descent and carrying out some actions together.
Our action is aimed at both foreigners and Italians. On the one hand, we address young Africans and Afro-descendants living in Italy with an awareness-raising and empowerment action: we want them to be aware of their rights and to understand that remaining silent in the face of injustice increases racism.
On the other hand, we want to promote a change in the way Italian society treats people of African descent, to deconstruct stereotypes about Africans and to change the image of Africa portrayed by the media: an image linked to misery, war, hunger and migrants begging to be rescued. What they do not show is that we Africans are so much more than that, and they do not realise how much cultural diversity there is in such a large continent. Arising Africans has therefore joined the REDANI campaign against the misuse of images of black children, shown to raise money.
To combat these stereotypes, on our Facebook page we want to educate about the value of African culture through various topics: historical figures, international relations, music, etc. We want to join other student groups to have a greater impact. We are young, full of energy and we will achieve a lot.
After this meeting, we agreed with Arising Africans to organise an Afro-Italian party in our house in Padua, and through this party, Ada said, “we want to deepen the concept of Afro-Italian identity and talk about the African awakening in Italy. It is not our intention to present only our point of view, but we want to give everyone the opportunity to express their opinion on the subject, and to create an event that aims at entertainment in an educational key”. Many associations in town were involved in the organisation of this Afro-Italian festival.
While we were organising these intercultural meetings, the then mayor of Padua, Massimo Bitonci, of the right-wing League Party, issued a decree forbidding all people from Africa to stay in the municipality of Padua, unless they presented a certificate of good health. Mayor Bitonci also abolished the “Council of Foreigners”. This Council was composed of elected representatives of foreigners living in Padua with residence permits. It was a way to involve this important part of the population in the life of the city. When Bitonci abolished this Council, Don Albino Bizzotto and I wrote a letter to the mayor asking for the Council to be reconstituted and proposing the opening of intercultural meeting spaces in various areas of the city.
Open Letter To the Municipal Administration of Padua
“In the documents of his magisterium, Pope Francis often expresses the dream of building, all together, a beautiful city. It is a dream that contrasts with another model of city that the world presents to us. Indeed, on the one hand, there are cities that “offer wellbeing and innumerable pleasures for a happy minority, housing is denied to thousands of our neighbours, our brothers and sisters including children (…) How painful it is to hear that poor settlements are marginalized, or, worse still, earmarked for demolition! How cruel are the images of violent evictions, bulldozers knocking down the tiny dwellings, images just like from a war.”5
At the same time, there are beautiful cities “which overcome paralyzing mistrust, integrate those who are different and make this very integration a new factor of development! How attractive are those cities which, even in their architectural design, are full of spaces which connect, relate and favour the recognition of others!” (LS 152). The Pope dreams of an architecture of beauty, a beautiful city that recognises the other, fostering communion and fraternal relations between different people.
This notwithstanding, there is also the reality of a city that devastates poor settlements, creating an unhealthy climate of hatred and war. What model of city should we Christians choose?
Pope Francis has no doubts about this. In his message for World Migrants Day he writes: “Migrants and refugees challenge us: how can we ensure that integration becomes mutually enriching, opens up positive pathways for communities and avoids the risk of discrimination, racism or xenophobia? The Gospel’s answer is mercy, which urges us to cultivate the culture of encounter, the only one capable of building a more just and fraternal world”. Of course, going to meet the other is hard work, it requires the effort to overcome one’s prejudices and to think of creative alternatives, but, as the Pope says, it is the only way to build a just society.
For us Christians, there is no alternative to encounter, at least no evangelical alternative; if we give up the effort of encounter, all that remains is confrontation, hatred and violence.
On Mercy Sunday, 3 April, to those who propose to “throw these people out”, the Pope reminded that we must act with tenderness, because rejecting the poor and foreigners “is not like Jesus”. According to the Pope, tenderness – “an almost forgotten word in today’s world” – and fraternity also have a political value: “Terrorism is fought with fraternity,” he said during the Holy Thursday mass.
This is why, precisely to support the culture of encounter so much emphasised by Francis, and to promote spaces that foster the recognition of the other, we ask the City of Padua, in this Jubilee of Mercy, to reopen the Council of Foreigners, which was an official space for dialogue with foreign citizens residing in the city.
We think that the Council of Foreigners is an asset that does not belong to one political party, but is a sign of hope for all citizens, especially young people, who hope for a future of peaceful coexistence between different peoples. When we reach out to others, Francis says, we enrich each other. And we are convinced that if in our city we create spaces where everyone (Italians and foreigners, the homeless and migrants) can dialogue and listen to each other, together – intertwining the dreams of all the peoples present in Padua – we will find ways and forms of coexistence that at the moment, being each on their own, we cannot even imagine’” (20 April 2016).
The mayor never replied to this letter, which was nevertheless published in the diocesan magazine.
This commitment to develop and live a spirituality of intercultural encounter remains one of the missionary priorities in building a fraternal and non-violent society.
Bro. Alberto Degan MCCJ
1Antonio Papisca, “Forza Onu”, in Mosaico di pace, Settembre 2001, 22.
4Barnard Häring, La noviolencia: una forma de cultura y esperanza (Herder, Barcelona, 1989), 203.
5Pope Francis (2014) “Address To the Participants of the World Meeting of Popular Movements”, Rome