Since 1986 the Community of Sant’ Egidio has gathered the religious leaders of the world to pray for peace and to dialogue aboutit. I began attending the gatherings in 1997 in Padua, Italy, where for the first time, I talked about the death penalty and its importance as a challenge to peace. From this time onward the Community of Sant’Egidio has become a leader in seeking worldwide abolition of the death penalty. When we presented three and a half million signatures calling for a moratorium on the death penalty to Kofi Annan at the United Nations in December 2000, Sant’ Egidio was responsible for most of the signatures. Sant’ Egidio is a Catholic lay community, now numbering 40,000 members around the world. I found in them a kindred spirit. The thrust of their mission is to befriend poor people and to help them in their quest for justice. Prayer and reflection on the Gospels is also key to their identity. People in Rome come in droves to attend their evening prayer. The Community has brought me to Italy several times - to Reggio Emilia and Parma, to Genoa and Florence to talk to young people about the death penalty and to enlist them in the moratorium campaign. A flock of these young ones were in Aachen. The film of Dead Man Walking has played an important role in awakening them to be involved in the abolition of the death penalty. In Parma I addressed 5,000 young people in a stadium. A band played their original song, the theme of the gathering: “Dead Man Walking No More.”
I love being with young people anywhere but Italian young people are especially interesting because their life-loving culture gives them a strong appreciation of human rights. Almost all politicial leaders in Italy consider the death penalty barbaric. I think it’s because the Italians suffered so much in World War II. They’ve never forgotten what happens when government is given power to kill. Many of the leaders in Italy refer to the U.S. as a “young country,” which, with the exception of 9/11 has never experienced death and destruction of our own citizens in a violent attack. They don’t think much of our president George Bush. In fact, many of them refer to him as a “cowboy” president, who is reckless about using violence to get his way in the world. Pope John Paul II sent a message to the gathering in Aachen, where Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Shinto, and Greek Orthodox were gathered to pray for peace and to dialogue. The hot spots of conflict in the world got special attention at this year’s gathering: Muslim-Christian and Israeli - Palestinian. Sometimes differences were sharp - and heated, but when the dialogue was done, on the last day, all of the participants turned to prayer, each according to his or her own tradition: Christians in the Aachen Cathedral, Jews in a synagogue, Muslims,in a mosque.
Townspeople lined the streets and assembled in the square near the cathedral for the final public ceremony. It was so moving to see two turbaned Imams and a Christian leader arm in arm after they had each lit a candle for peace. Marco Gnavi, a leader in the Sant ‘Egidio community whispered to us, “All three of them are from Baghdad.” (See Eleanor’s report for more detail)
After Aachen Eleanor and I visited the Community in Brussels and Antwerp. In Brussels I met with the deputy Mayor, who was instrumental in making Brussels one of the Cities of Life, which lighted the Atomium, a famous sculpture modeled on the atom, with the message lit in five different languages: “No to the death penalty.” There are now twelve or so cities in Italy which light up a public building or monument stating their opposition to the death penalty. In Rome, they light the Roman Colisseum (where some of the first state killing took place.) Hopefully we can get the same kind of public witness in the U.S. Imagine how it would be if on December 10, Human Rights Day, cathedrals and churches and synagogues all over the nation were lit up to symbolize the commitment to end government killing.
About my new book… I’m writing the last chapter and plan to deliver the manuscript to the editors at Random House in late December or early January. I’m squeezing in writing time over the next several months to finish the book. It looks like the title of the book will be THE MACHINERY OF DEATH. We’ll see. Deciding on a title is a collaborative project with the publisher. Hopefully we’re looking at publication of the book in June. Then the OTHER WORK begins of going on a book tour and doing media appearances to get word out about the book. Start praying for Oprah Winfrey’s heart. I’ve been on her show when Dead Man Walking was made into a film, and if she has me on her show and features the new book, it will be headed for the best-seller list and be read by a lot of people. As I said in my speech in Aachen, widening the circle of public discourse on the death penalty is the way that we will one day abolish its practice. Suddenly, I look at a calendar and realize that I’ve been working almost 20 years to end the death penalty.
I carried all of you, my CSJ family, with me to Aachen. Our charism couldn’t be more needed in the world: “that they all may be one.” Thank God we get to do this precious work of the Gospel - together.
Love from 33,000 feet above the Atlantic, on our way home,