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IAPD-Italy Webinar Probes Spirituality and Growth

Rome, Italy"Ethics, Spirituality and Individual Growth" was the topic of an online discussion organized by the Italian chapter of UPF’s Interreligious Association for Peace and Development (IAPD). The event, which was held on September 4, 2023, is part of a cycle of online interfaith public initiatives, "Our Exodus to the Promised Land of Peace: Spiritual Dimension and Practical Life,” to be held this year and in 2024.

Carlo Zonato, the president of UPF-Italy, opened the webinar. "One of the founding values of Universal Peace Federation's vision of peace,” he said, “is an awareness of the importance of spirituality for the life, maturity of heart and character of each of us and for becoming peacemakers. For this reason we have promoted a series of meetings to reflect on a model of human advancement that harmonizes material, social and cognitive growth with the ethical and spiritual growth of the person and society."

The webinar moderator was Dr. Enza Pennino, the coordinator of the Italian chapter of UPF’s International Association of Arts and Culture for Peace (IAACP).

Tenzin Khentse, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, was the first speaker. "Today's society is still a victim of the old Enlightenment division that pointed to what is secular as real and true, and downgraded religion and spirituality to beliefs, myths and illusions."

For the monk, the universal ethical principles proper to all religions and spiritual traditions, explained by great teachers, sages, philosophers, as well as artists, poets, and literati, are based on the experiential wisdom of what is useful and beneficial to humans and all of existence. Because of our inability to choose and pursue what is truly helpful to us, we have gone in the opposite direction.

"The belief that true happiness lies solely in an existence based on the senses, money, power and the possession of material goods has led to wars, hunger and the destruction of the ecosystem," he explained.

Buddhist teaching calls this historical time the "Age of Five Degenerations," but identifies it as the best time for spiritual practice. According to Tenzin Khentse, it is a demonstration of the collapse of a system that has favored the opposite of human nature, which seeks balance within and without, reappropriating the basic ethical values of peace, love, compassion, empathy, generosity and selflessness.

He spoke about two universal and very practical teachings of Buddha. The first is that everyone wants to live peacefully and happily, and no one wants hardship and suffering; the second is interdependence, whereby we all depend on each other, a concept mediated by observation of existence and the nature of things.

"Consequently, to harm others or the environment is to harm oneself—a wisdom that humans have denied, in the quest to make their own political, religious views and interests prevail, conquering other peoples, exploiting and enslaving them."

According to the speaker, "We live in a world where there is no sharing, but the unacceptable difference between the wealth of the very few and the hunger of the many." This situation "is an offense to humanity, a consequence of a logic and an economy that leads to the suicide of civil coexistence."

In conclusion, he recalled that "our actions, our way of thinking, our aspirations, our prayers, the peace in our hearts, are an effective counterweight to this drift. By uniting with others who feel humanity as a family and the planet as a generous mother, we can concretely do some good."

For Father Valentino Cottini, a Verona Diocesan priest, "It is spirituality and ethics that define the degree of maturity of a person, a community, a people and a religion." He cited the Bible’s Book of Proverbs, a book dedicated to the formation of the person, in which ethics and spirituality are inextricably intertwined.

"Personal growth is based on the harmonious composition between these two values," he explained, "where the former is expressed by equity, justice and righteousness; the latter by the fear of the Lord, within which ethics finds its proper place. Aiming at the growth of children and exhorting them to become wise, Proverbs proposes an ethics from the outside to model, with the participation of the subjects, what is already inherent in the human heart and only needs to be roughened. Again the paternal sapiential discourse, addressing young people, warns against disreputable moral behavior.”

Rules that we also find in the Ten Commandments—a summary of the Torah, which literally means "Instruction"—are intended to foster the harmonious growth of the person and to develop civil coexistence. In the Acts of the Apostles, he explained, it is proclaimed that God "does not make preferences of persons, but welcomes those who fear Him and practice justice, to whatever nation they belong."

Father Cottini noted that "in Judeo-Christian spirituality the self-limitation for a mature realization of consciousness comes from creaturely perception. A person is not God, but His creation, called to fulfill himself in the awareness of dependence on the Creator."

He then analyzed the meaning of Christian perfection, which "is not the absence of faults, absolute self-mastery and absence of drives, but the readiness to make disciples of Christ. It is freedom from every enslaving bond, from every idol, such as that of wealth, in order to follow the man of the Beatitudes, which describe the characteristics for achieving happiness, a wonderful, serene and total freedom, to the point of loving one's enemies."

He cited St. Paul, who in the Epistles sets the terms of what it means to be a Christian and the ethical consequences of freely choosing to "be in Christ."

In conclusion, he said, "for the personal growth that is determined by spirituality and ethics, the golden rule of not doing to others what you would not want done to you and doing to others what you would want done to you, present in all the great religions, is sufficient."

Father Jacques Serge Frant, a Melkite Greek Catholic Church monk, said, "I would like to begin my speech by quoting a verse from Psalm 8: 'O Lord, our Lord, how great is Your name over all the earth! I want to raise above the heavens Your magnificence.'"

Referring to the words of the Psalm, he then asked, "Why is God great? Because He is our Creator who created us in His image and likeness. He made us free, because God is love, which is a free and gratuitous act. Love is the key word that can still speak to the world today."

He recalled that originally humans lived in harmony with God and creation, but after the Fall they were removed from the earthly Paradise. From that moment humans began their journey in search of God, and that of the Creator to re-embrace His creation, as in the parable of the merciful Father.

Quoting St. Augustine and St. Paul, Father Frant highlighted the condition of humans, tormented, searching for the meaning of their existence and in need of help in their search for God. He recalled the advice of Don Dossetti, his spiritual father: "If you want to climb toward God, you must come down like the little Zacchaeus of the Gospel, who had climbed a tree in Jericho to see Jesus. The Lord said to him, 'Come down, because I want to enter your house.' If you want to go up, come down in humility and welcome God who wants to enter you to celebrate and witness His glory and His love.'"

For Father Frant, therefore, we are called to witness God's love with our lives and to sanctify His name. "We call God ‘Father,’ because He loves us unconditionally and wants to save us. In Him there is no vengeance, but merciful, forgiving love."

He quoted St. John who writes in his Epistle, "It was not we who loved God, but it was He who loved us and sent His Son as a victim of atonement for our sins.

“This is where our spiritual journey begins," the monk explained, "by letting ourselves be loved by God who is our Father. If you have experienced God's fatherly love, you can recognize Him as the father of all, and every man becomes your brother. His commandment is that whoever loves Him, [should] love his brother also."

He clarified what it means concretely to "sanctify God's name," the request contained in the Lord's Prayer. It means bringing His Kingdom to earth by putting into practice the Simple Prayer of St. Francis and living according to the spirit of the Beatitudes—the handbook of Christian ethics—that leads to perfect gladness. He finished by reading St. Paul's Hymn to Charity and quoting St. Augustine's phrase, "The measure of love is to love without measure."

The meeting concluded with a long question-and-answer session in which participants further explored the themes of the meeting.

By Carlo Zonato, president,UPF-Italy
Monday, September 4, 2023


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