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MATERA, Italy: Under a damp, grey sky His Holiness was given a warm send off from Inverness early this morning, and then flew across the Channel, across Northern Europe, over the Alps to Bologna, Italy. From there he drove to Mirandola, the city in the Province of Modena that was struck by a powerful earthquake when he was last in Italy just over a month ago. Churches and factories collapsed, 17 people were killed, 200 were injured and 14,000 were made homeless. His Holiness wished to come and console the people who were affected and express his solidarity with them.
“I have visited people in Christchurch, New Zealand, who were struck by an earthquake and people in Japan, where they experienced an earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear accident. What I’ve said to all of them, I’ll say to you. Please don’t feel downcast, don’t be sad, but look to the future. You’ll rebuild your homes and factories. Sometimes I think of Italian people as very relaxed, but this isn’t a time to relax, but to work hard. Many other people have come to help you, so look forward and don’t give up. What I wanted to do was to come and share your worries and anxieties.”
Local leaders showed him some of the damaged areas, including a collapsed church and the City Hall that is currently supported by scaffolding. Local people reached out to shake His Holiness’s hand and clamoured for his attention. Their repeated expressions of thanks showed how pleased they were that he had come to see them.
In another part of town a more organised meeting took place, addressing which, His Holiness said, “As soon as I heard about the earthquake and the destruction it caused I wanted to come. Don’t dwell on what you’ve lost, focus instead on being determined to rebuild. Naturally, it’s sad to have lost your friends and relatives, who will not return. But, death is a part of life, even though these were untimely deaths. Imagine how sad your friends and relatives would be if they could see you downcast rather than determined to renew your lives. In my own case, when my Senior Tutor passed away, the man who gave me monk’s ordination, I felt like the solid rock that I could lean on for support had been taken away, but I decided, instead of being sorrowful, to work hard to fulfil his wishes. You too can do something like that.
“I would like to sit with you in silent meditation for a few minutes.”
Finally, His Holiness remarked that it is not proper to come to visit like this empty-handed, and announced that he would like to donate another $50,000 to the relief fund. And with that he drove back to Bologna, from where he flew on to Bari in Southern Italy and drove to the town of Matera to meet fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, Betty Williams, to support her project to build a City of Peace.
“Brothers and sisters, once I heard about my dear friend, Betty Williams plans to build a City of Peace, I was determined to come and see for myself if there was any gap between her vision and reality. It is really encouraging to see what local support she has evidently inspired.
“We are all the same, born from a mother and receiving her affection and care when we were young. I believe this is how a seed of affection and compassion is planted in every one of us. My mother too was immensely kind, and if I have some affection and compassion in me today, I received the seeds from her. The trouble is as we grow up the strength of that seed often diminishes, which is why it’s important that we find ways to nurture it and encourage it to grow. I have made a commitment to work until I die to raise awareness that the source of happiness lies within us, that warm-heartedness is that source of happiness. I appreciate the commitment you too have made, Betty.”
In the course of answering questions that followed, His Holiness made clear that the main purpose of his visiting different countries is to meet ordinary people and share experiences with them. He said these days, in our materialistic culture, many people are led to believe that money is the ultimate source of happiness. Consequently, when they don’t have enough of it they feel let down. Therefore, it is important to let people know that they have the source of contentment and happiness within themselves, and that it is related to nurturing our natural inner values.
He said, many people think moral principles are related to religion. But we live at a time when there are many people not really interested in religion any more, and many others who go through the motions of religious observance, but who don’t apply what their faith teaches in their day to day life. That’s why His Holiness is placing such stress on the cultivation of secular ethics; moral principles not dependent on religious faith. He clarifies that he views secularism in an ancient Indian context as being not dismissive of religion, but as respectful towards all who observe a spiritual faith as well as those who have none.
Asked about the meeting he attended some years ago in Assisi, he described it as a wonderful opportunity, in a sacred place, for religious leaders to gather and get to know each other. He remarked that the idea of one religion and one truth seems to contradict the idea of several religions and several truths, but that the first applies to the individual, while the second applies to the community at large. He cited the example of the late Italian Communist leader, Enrico Berlinguer, who, although an atheist himself, had no problem driving his devoutly Catholic wife to church every Sunday. His Holiness suggested it is possible for us all to be as respectful of each other’s beliefs without compromising our own.
Tomorrow, His Holiness will visit the site of the City of Peace with Betty Williams. Together they will travel to the Baronale Palace, Scanzano Jonico and to Sant’ Arcangelo Domenico Esposito to speak about the project.