The Vatican has called on Christians and Hindus to avoid giving in to “contempt for human dignity”, the “curtailment of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens, including religious rights” and “aggression” against those who are different and instead collaborate using religion to build peace.
“As believers and leaders of our respective religions, with common convictions and a sense of shared responsibility for the welfare of humanity, may we, Christians and Hindus, sincerely endeavour to become artisans of peace,” said the message signed by Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot and Msgr. Indunil Janakaratne Kodithuwakku Kankanamalage, respectively prefect and secretary of the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue.
“May God, Supreme Light, illumine your hearts and minds, bless your homes and neighborhoods, and fill your lives with peace and happiness,” they wrote to Hindus celebrating Diwali or Deepavali, also known as the “festival of lights,” — a major Hindu festival celebrated every year in October or November with the dates being determined by the Hindu lunar calendar.
This year millions of people in various countries will be celebrating the festival on November 12, although it may locally vary a day before or after. Fiji, Guyana, India, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago all celebrate Diwali as a public holiday.
John XXIII and the elusive quest for peace
The Vatican’s Diwali message elaborates on the theme of peacebuilding, noting that this year is the 60th anniversary of Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), John XXIII’s “timely, impassioned and much-needed plea to world leaders and people to work together for peace” and “to find amicable solutions to problems in a spirit of mutual trust, through dialogue and negotiations.”
Pacem in Terris was written in “deeply troubled” times, when the world seemed to be on the brink of nuclear war. Sadly, this is also the current situation with its many instances of “contempt for human dignity; the denial or curtailment of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens, including their religious rights; and of intolerance and hatred, injustice and discrimination, violence and aggression directed towards those who are ethnically, culturally, economically, linguistically and religiously diverse, or against the more vulnerable members of society”, the letter points out. Yet it also highlights the “great potential” that interreligious dialogue possesses for peacebuilding and says religious believers “must not yield to pessimism, discouragement and renunciation” but nurture “mutual trust and social friendship among interfaith communities,” it said.
“Pope John XXIII, now a revered saint, prophetically stated that ‘peace is but an empty word if it does not rest upon … an order that is founded on truth, built up on justice, nurtured and animated by charity and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom,'” the dicastery officials said in their message.
They articulated the “four pillars” of peace that John XXIII wrote about: truth, justice, love and freedom and how those pillars mean peacemaking includes defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. “As believers, we need to express our aspiration for peace through consistent and concerted efforts, grounded in an unshakable fidelity”, they said. The theme of the message is thus cantered on the vision that Christians and Hindus can, together, work on “building peace in truth, justice, love, and freedom.”
“The teaching of Pacem in Terris has given rise, over the past six decades, to a heightened awareness among people worldwide – albeit in varying degrees – of the need to respect the transcendental dignity of persons, their legitimate rights and their shared responsibility to work for the common good in a spirit of solidarity,” the message said.
More concretely, “families, led by the example of parents and the elderly, as well as educational institutions and the media, ought to play a preeminent role in inspiring the desire for peace and teaching the values that build peace in men and women of every age,” it added.
Celebrating the triumph of light over darkness
The annual festival of lights, which Hindus in most parts of the world celebrate, dates to the Vedic period, around 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Rooted in the Hindu culture, Diwali celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, life over death and good over evil.
As part of the celebration, gifts and sweets are exchanged among relatives and neighbors. Children set off noisy fireworks. It is believed that the light and sounds of fireworks drive away evil spirits. Hindus illuminate their homes with earthen oil lamps and colorful electric bulbs, recalling stories from their scriptures of the victory of good over evil and commemorating it as a victory of light over darkness.
The festival resonates with Catholics as light is a very important part of Christianity and has much significance for Catholics who light candles in all ceremonies, including baptism, Communion and Easter.
Instituted by Pope Saint Paul VI in 1964 as the Secretariat for non-Christians, which would later was called the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and then the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, it regularly sends out messages each year on the occasion of Diwali, as well as the Muslim observance of Ramadan and Id al Fitr, and the Buddhist festival of Vesakh.
The Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue is the official way of dialogue between the Church and followers of other religions as expressed in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (In Our Age).