NEW YORK (CNS) — A fundamental respect for the inherent dignity of the human being and the providence of divine guidance are basic to all peace and justice efforts at the United Nations, according to Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the new papal nuncio to the United Nations.
Archbishop Chullikatt spoke Sept. 16 at a prayer service on the eve of the opening of the 65th session of the U.N. General Assembly. It was his first official function since arriving in New York Sept. 10 and presenting his credentials to the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon earlier in the day.
The interreligious service, which drew more than 300 people, is an annual event sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York, the permanent observer mission of the Holy See to the United Nations and the Church of the Holy Family, where it was held.
Clergy, diplomats, parishioners, U.N. representatives and staff associates streamed into the church, which is near U.N. headquarters.
The congregation sang, prayed, listened to Scripture and heard encouragement from Archbishop Chullikatt, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, M. Joseph Deiss of Switzerland, president of the 65th session of the General Assembly, and Ban.
Archbishop Chullikatt noted that the event was a venerable local tradition, but atypical in diplomatic circles.
“As diplomats, usually we gather to implement instructions from our respective capitals,” he said. “But today we are assembled at a prayer service, not with instructions, but for inspiration, calling down the Almighty’s blessings and guidance, divine instruction and illumination and inspiration for our deliberations.”
Archbishop Chullikatt read a message from Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, which said Pope Benedict XVI hoped the General Assembly would pay particular attention “to the scandal of the growing gap between rich and poor in our world, to the urgent need for models of development grounded in solidarity and respect for the diversity of cultures, and the construction of a social order which embodies and respects the objective moral order.”
Archbishop Dolan said religion and faith are part of the “very fabric of the United Nations,” not as specific denominations or churches, but as the “noble sentiments of trust, honesty, mutual respect, integrity and keeping one’s word.”
“All are basic building blocks of your exalted call,” he said. “All are virtues that flow from religion, morality and faith.”
The archbishop said he was not surprised that the participants chose to pray together on the eve of the opening of the General Assembly. “We are at our best when we are most in harmony with what God intends for us, when we give away in love what is most ours.”
Ban said September is a season of renewal at the United Nations. “And we begin right here, by giving thanks, gathering strength and looking forward in faith in our universal values, faith in our common humanity and faith in our shared future,” he said.
“We are all awake to the challenges of our world. Economic insecurity is all around us. So is the language of division. Communities and families everywhere are struggling to navigate these anxious times. We are being tested,” he added.
Nonetheless, the secretary-general said he had profound hope. “It is not an abstract feeling, it is rooted in so much that I have seen and heard around the world.” He offered examples of people in dire conditions who mustered the tenacity to build new lives.
He described seeing young amputee victims of the war in Sierra Leone “playing soccer, competing, kicking, running, scoring. To my eyes, they were even better than the World Cup players.” Their moving display of determination was replicated throughout “a rising Africa striving to achieve the Millennium Development Goals,” he said.
The eight goals, set in 2000 with the intention of reaching them by 2015, address issues such as hunger, education, inequality, child and maternal health, HIV/AIDS and the environment. They were accepted by 189 member nations and reconfirmed by 45 nations in a 2007 call to action. The 65th session of the General Assembly will review progress toward achieving the goals.
Ban referred to the ongoing controversy surrounding the proposed construction of an Islamic center near ground zero, a Sept. 7 statement from New York religious leaders urging calm and a threat, later rescinded, by a Florida minister to burn a copy of the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
“In the face of those who seek to drive a wedge between people of faith, I saw many religious leaders rise up and speak out with one voice for tolerance and understanding,” he said. “We know the way ahead can never be lit by the flames of burning books and fiery words. It is illuminated by the light of reason and justice. It shines by keeping the faith in our common humanity.”
Ban said the United Nations is at a “pivot point for progress on three of our biggest dreams: to build a prosperous world free of poverty, to create a sustainable world that is cleaner and greener for our children and to secure a safer world, free of menace and nuclear weapons.”
“These goals are not only within reason, they are within reach. All of it is possible, not in some distant future, but in our time. Together, let us pledge and let us pray to make it so,” Ban urged.