By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
On a cold, rainy morning in Naples’ Plebiscite Square, flanked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Pope Benedict XVI said that “prayer is the greatest force for the transformation of the world.”
Benedict came to Naples to open an international inter-religious meeting sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio, titled “For a World without Violence: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue.” The conference continues through Tuesday, when 51 leaders representing a cross-section of faith traditions are expected to issue an appeal denouncing the use of religion to justify violence.
Despite the inter-faith climate of the event, Benedict XVI addressed himself this morning largely to Naples itself, arguing that the city’s numerous social difficulties require in the first place not merely political efforts but “a deep spiritual renewal.”
In effect, the pope’s message was a Neapolitan variation of one of his papacy’s constant themes: the construction of a better world cannot take place in abstraction from questions of faith. The only secure basis for justice and peace, Benedict argued, is God.
“Christian prayer is not an expression of fatalism and inertia,” the pope said. “Indeed, it’s the opposite of evasion of reality, of a consoling intimacy: it’s the force of hope, the maximum expression of faith in the power of God who is love and who does not abandon us.”
Christian prayer, the pope said, has an “agonistic” character, marked by struggle, “because it takes sides decisively with the Lord in order to combat injustice and to defeat evil with good. It’s the arm of the little ones and the poor of spirit, which repudiates every kind of violence.”
Benedict noted that Naples is marked by a remarkable contrast between wealth and architectural grandeur, but also enduring poverty and criminality.
“For many, life is not simple: there are many situations of poverty, of a shortage of housing, of unemployment and underemployment, of the lack of future prospects,” he said. “There’s also the sad phenomenon of violence.”
“It’s not just a matter of the deplorable number of crimes associated with the mafia,” the pope said. He warned that a mentality of violence has become part of a widely diffused mentality “in which illegality prospers … and a culture of taking whatever one can get.”
The pope called for “a serious strategy of prevention,” one which “points to schools, work, and helping young people make good use of their free time.”
Deeper than those points, however, the pope called for a spiritual renewal rooted in Christian identity.
“The true hope is born only from the blood of Christ, and that spilled out for him,” he said.
In his Angelus remarks at the conclusion of the Mass, Benedict welcomed the inter-religious gathering sponsored by Sant'Egidio, saying that it could contribute to peace. At the same time, however, the pope sent a clear signal that dialogue must not come at the expense of Catholic identity by also noting that today is World Mission Day. Speading the Christian faith "to all humanity," the pope said, remains an urgent Christian duty. He called for material and spiritual support of missionaries, especially those facing persecution.
Benedict XVI appeared to be affected by the wind and the cold (temperatures hovered around 55 degrees), coughing repeatedly throughout his homily. As the Mass went on, the crowd became progressively smaller as people sought refuge from the rain. Nevertheless, the pope kept his sense of humor, at one point joking, “The bad weather should not discourage us, because Naples is always beautiful!”
The Prime Minister of Italy, Romano Prodi, who is a native of Naples, greeted Benedict XVI when he arrived in the city this morning by helicopter from Rome, and attended the Mass in front of Naples’ Church of St. Francesco de Paolo. Prodi's government has sometimes clashed with the Vatican, including debates over civil registration of same-sex unions, and in 2005 Prodi publicly rejected a call from the Italian bishops to abstain from a referendum on in-vitro fertilization, saying he was a "grown-up Catholic" who would go to the polls. Nevertheless, Benedict XVI gave communion to Prodi during this morning's Mass.
Today's brief stop in Naples marks Benedict XVI's eighth pastoral visit in Italy outside Rome.