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2022: The Mediterranean, a Frontier of Peace

Antonio Spadaro, SJ - Luca Geronico - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Jun 20th 2022

At the end of 2018, this journal wrote about a major state of  world disorder: “More than ever, this state of disorder requires a strong international stance from Italy and an active foreign policy, especially in the Mediterranean, the meeting point of Europe, Africa and Asia. Perhaps a call for a ‘new Mediterranean order’ is necessary.”[1] Today, thirty years after the Balkan crisis, this is more urgent than ever as Europe experiences the tragedy of war on the borders of the European Union.

An unforeseen coincidence saw the dual forum of bishops and mayors from across the Mediterranean gathered in Florence from February 23 to 27, and meeting  at the same time as Putin’s offensive in Ukraine commenced. This “provocation” of history rendered even more dramatic and timely the reflections of the 58 bishops from three different continents, who gathered in the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella, and the 65 mayors of the Mediterranean, gathered in Palazzo Vecchio. 

Bishops and mayors

The Florence conference took place two years after the first meeting under the heading  “Mediterranean, Frontier of Peace,” held in Bari from February 19 to 23, 2020.[2] It initiated a comparison that was not only ecclesial, but also “civic” among the different Mediterranean regions. The meeting in Bari had only involved the bishops, but the pandemic, over the course of the next two years prevented the desired meetings and pastoral exchanges between the Churches of the Mediterranean Sea, the “Mare nostrum.”

The Florentine encounter, involving also the cities of the Mediterranean, was born thanks to the initiative of the mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, who proposed a new series of Mediterranean Colloquies to the presidency of the Italian Episcopal Conference. He was inspired by Giorgio La Pira, mayor of Florence from 1951 to 1957 and then from 1961 to 1964, who had already grasped in those years the fundamental geopolitical role of the “Mediterranean space.” From 1958 to 1964 he had promoted four international meetings of mayors in the Tuscan capital after a meeting in 1957 with King Mohammed V of Morocco. He decided to convene in Florence – in the name of  common cultural roots and the Abrahamic genesis of the three monotheisms – a meeting of  politically-minded people, and in particular, prominent citizens of the Mediterranean and of the world.

This was based on  an informal style of diplomacy, capable of opening up avenues of dialogue even during the most bitter international crises, such as the one involving the Suez Canal, and of continuing – thanks to the relations established and trips made by the “holy mayor,” even after these exchanges were over – during the no less difficult tensions that began in 1965 with the escalation of the Vietnam War, begun 10 years earlier.

La Pira’s legacy, naturally influencing the forum of the mayors, was overlaid, as far as the ecclesial forum was concerned, by the memory of the Council of Florence, which in 1439 brought together in the Tuscan capital bishops from East and West to try, without actually succeeding, to overcome the schism involving the Eastern churches. This was underlined in the speech of Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti when he declared: “I cannot but express my emotion in becoming aware that since the Council of Florence such a large number of bishops have not met in this historic place.”

This was an illustrious historical antecedent for a conference marked by the eruption of the Ukrainian crisis. Cardinal Bassetti also cited Salvatore Quasimodo, verbalizing the strong emotions that affected  Florence in those days: “O man of my time, you are still a man of the stone and the sling.”

A sea of connecting fractures

The Mediterranean is a sea made up of fractures that unite as they divide, like joints. It extends  from Djerba to Beirut, from Genoa to Barcelona, from Marseilles to Piraeus, including four straits: the Strait of Messina in the middle; the Strait of Gibraltar to the west; and the Bosphorus, which joins the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and, with the Strait of the Dardanelles, marks the southern border between the European and Asian continents. There is also the Suez Canal, which both unites and divides Africa and Asia.

The Mediterranean is a geopolitical paradox; it is a most fragmented yet interconnected region. The sea, we could say, is geopolitically taking possession of an ever greater slice of hinterland, fully involving the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Balkans and that strip of land that from West Africa crosses the Sahel and reaches the Gulf of Aden. Its challenges are enormous: migration, terrorism, economic and climate inequality, balances of influence, armed conflict, of which we are all aware  we need only mention Syria and Libya. The stability of the Mediterranean has a direct impact on the security of Italy and Europe. This sea has taken on a global centrality because  of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s modern “Silk Road” and its implications.

Because of these factors, it must be understood and protected. It is a hinge. It is a basin that Pope Francis spanned  with his trips to Morocco and Iraq, encompassing spatial boundaries of an area that unites three continents, three faiths, three spatial dimensions such as mountains, great plains and deserts. One needs to recognize  in this hinge the “weak-because-inclusive force” that can unite forces which would otherwise clash, or tend to clash. The Mediterranean must be defended as a hinge that requires its own citizenship, that of the path of Abraham. Does not being citizens of the path of Abraham mean being citizens of individual  diversities, united but not uniform in the meeting of multiple citizenships? Without a hinge, everything breaks.[3]

During Pope Francis’ trip to Morocco, King Mohammed VI said, “We deliberately meet here, between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, aware of the  short distance between Morocco and Seville, so that this will be a point of cultural and spiritual exchange and communication between Africa and Europe.”[4] This is what is needed in the Mediterranean today: encounter, exchange and spiritual communication.

If we speak of “spiritual exchange and communication,” it is impossible to consider the Mediterranean without involving the reflection and spirituality proper to the three great Abrahamic religions, including  the task of  bringing Rome and Constantinople into the reflection. History, as well as geography, prevents us from doing so as individuals: we must do it together.

The starting point for the discussion can only be the “Document on Human Fraternity and Common Coexistence,” signed by Pope Francis and the Imam of al-Azhar on February 4, 2019.[5] In Abu Dhabi, the recognition of fraternity changed perspectives and led directly to reflection on the meaning of citizenship: we are all brothers and sisters, and therefore we are all citizens with equal rights and duties, in the shadow of which all experience justice, Francis and al-Tayyeb wrote. Common citizenship, the foundational criterion of living together, indicates – particularly to the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean – a way out of the aridity of opposing visions.

A Mediterranean citizenship

Citizenship, following the thinking of the Abu Dhabi Document on Human Fraternity, was one of the themes at the center of the discussion of both bishops and mayors, even if it obviously involved different sensibilities. In particular, for the bishops of the southern shores of the Mediterranean, it can be read as a real antidote to marginalization and persecution, even violent persecution. However, in Middle Eastern societies and in cultural contexts with a strong Islamic majority, it still needs to be negotiated in legal terms and defined in social practice even before  political reforms, which some countries are struggling to develop.

For this reason, the five days in Florence – following La Pira’s poetic reference to Florence as the “new Jerusalem on the mountain” – were like a first significant step to start a debate on a Mediterranean citizenship, still to be fully articulated, as well as of a possible new ecclesial consciousness linked to the Mediterranean basin. This is a cultural objective, even before being a juridical one, that the Italian Church wants to insert in the framework of that new Christian humanism which Pope Francis himself demonstrated during his visit to Florence on November 10, 2015 – for the fifth conference of the Italian Church – in his speech to its representatives in the cathedral of Santa Maria in Fiore.[6]

Now those three key terms indicated by Bergoglio – humility, selflessness, blessedness – must characterize the presence of Christian communities across the basin. “Humility,” meaning – quoting Pope Francis’ speech in Florence in 2015 – avoiding “the obsession with preserving one’s own glory, one’s own dignity, one’s own influence.” “Selflessness,” which is based on a humanity that is “always a going forth,” avoiding “enclosing ourselves in structures that give us false protection.” Finally there is “Blessedness,” which is a “laborious gamble made of renunciation, listening and learning, and whose fruits are reaped over time, giving us an incomparable peace.”

On the civil side, the delegations of the Mediterranean mayors focused on migration, environment, health, safety and culture, which are “the four legs of the table of peace,” as explained by Mayor Dario Nardella, coordinator of the forum. Obviously, given the complexity of the problems and the vastness and heterogeneity of the area involved, it was a starting point for an encounter that will require, in order to reach appreciable results, considerable time and resources.

The double forum of Florence suggested a method of work and objectives capable of bringing together for once the three shores of the “Lake of Tiberias” – another typical La Pira expression – around a common project, managing to talk about the Mediterranean without having to chase after the details of the migration crisis or the Libyan, Lebanese, and Syrian crises as the only key to reading the whole basin.

The Charter of Florence

The Charter of Florence – the rather schematic concluding document of the conference – includes hopes that mayors and bishops will be able to continue regular consultations, promote educational paths, strengthen bonds of fraternity and religious freedom, as well as foster effective cooperation at all levels.

But above all, beyond important and appreciable declarations of intent, the Charter is witness to a significant and largely unprecedented effort to try to define in positive terms the role of the Mare Nostrum as the focus of the Euro-North African-Middle Eastern world: a geographical space, but also a crossroads of civilizations – as Fernand Braudel used to say – in close proximity to each other, and for this reason a revealing place, an epiphenomenon, a thermometer registering the   health of religious, social and economic relations in this part of the world. The scandal and tragedy of migration and the transformation of the Mare Nostrum into the largest cemetery in Europe embody the failure of a model of economic development and of culture.

The Mediterranean, frontier of peace and “the Lake of Tiberias” for the children of Abraham, can also be “the archetype, the model of a global world where we can live in unity, integrating in fraternity people of different origins and identities,” said Cardinal Cristóbal Lopez Romero, Archbishop of Rabat (Morocco), speaking at the closing session of the forum of bishops and mayors in the  Palazzo Vecchio. “Today we leave with the commitment to make a more Catholic and therefore universal Church thanks to the relationships of fraternity born among us in these days,” added the cardinal, who invoked “an incarnated Church, concerned about citizens and the poorest, a Church not enclosed in a bubble, not self-referential, committed to building a new heaven and a new earth, a prophetic Church that envisages the Mediterranean as a space for dialogue and peace, a Church that builds bridges, initiates  dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths, between believers and non-believers at the service of universal fraternity.”

If a historico-political reading capable of ideally embracing all the shores of the Mediterranean, including the Middle East and the Balkans, is still lacking, all the more reason for a “Mediterranean construction site” to define the identity of the “Lake of Tiberias”, of human fraternity in the name of Abraham may be a challenge, both in civil and religious terms, that could offer a solid foundation on which to base projects of dialogue and Euro-Mediterranean political partnership. All of this would give equal dignity to citizens, as well as, from a theological perspective, to the believers on the different shores of the Mediterranean, on the basis of a principle of reciprocity, thus launching an unprecedented season of interreligious dialogue, not restricted  to the essential meetings of religious leaders and theological conferences of specialists.

The rediscovery of the common descent from Abraham – the conviviality to be built between the three monotheistic faiths, so dear to La Pira and indicated as the key to interreligious dialogue by the historic trip of Pope Francis to Iraq at the beginning of March 2021[7] – could be the foundation of a new Mediterranean humanism in the era of globalization, able to give a soul to the project of Euro-Mediterranean partnership, launched in 1995 with the Barcelona process.[8]

In April 2019, La Civiltà Cattolica organized a seminar with 22 experts from each country bordering the Mediterranean. The fruit of that meeting, which took place behind closed doors, was a volume entitled Being Mediterranean. Brothers and Citizens of Mare Nostrum.[9] The book was launched  at the headquarters of our journal by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and the then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. In that context, the cardinal stated, among other things, that if the perspective “is that of Cain,” the Mediterranean “can only turn into a large cemetery.” In order to break this deadly process, it is necessary to “recognize and look after each other as brothers.”[10]

It is a “path of fraternity,” which Francis has evoked since his first greeting on March 13, 2013, and then reminded us of it with the Declaration on Human Fraternity in Abu Dhabi. That document, Cardinal Parolin said, was “an important landing” for a journey initiated by the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate. Citizenship, “full citizenship,” is its political cornerstone: a right for Christians living in the Middle East, who must not “be treated as inferior citizens or believers.”

Possible developments

Thus, after Florence, new Mediterranean initiatives can be explored: the possibility – by establishing some form of coordination – of holding the forum of bishops and mayors every two years in the different Churches able and willing to host it; the establishment of an “Erasmus” of the Mediterranean, with the identification of twenty pilot universities, in order to create a Mediterranean generation; finally, the idea of a Synod for the Mediterranean, already suggested some time ago by the Archbishop of Marseilles, Jean Marc Aveline.

Possible developments, which would expand the symbolic example envisaged by the Italian Bishops’ Conference, which will promote reconciliation projects by selecting 12 young people from areas of conflict in the Mediterranean (such as Algeria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria), who, residing for a year in the international student residence, “Rondine Cittadella della Pace” – an organization committed to the reduction of armed conflict in the world – will attend a master’s program at the University of Siena to become “young leaders of peace,” capable of launching, once they return to their countries of origin, initiatives in the spheres of education, dialogue between faiths and cultures, and aid to the most vulnerable.

This is a prophecy of La Pira, which after the forum of Florence needs in order to continue and incarnate itself, to be engaged with our present history. The words he wrote in April 1977, a few months before his death, remain as a polar star: “Building the tent of peace is also the destiny of the Mediterranean. These peoples, even if full of lacerations and contrasts, have […] a common historical background, a spiritual and cultural destiny and in some way also a common political destiny. Their ‘unity’ is essential and is almost a premise for the unity of the whole family of peoples.”

Three steps to develop

From Florence it is now necessary to restart our efforts with an even greater impetus, drawing strength from the Document signed in Abu Dhabi. We would like to point out, in particular, three passages of that text that are worthy of further, courageous study: “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, so too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.”

We also quote the passage from the Florence Charter which states: “there is a need to develop greater opportunities for dialogue and constructive encounters between the different cultural and religious traditions present in our communities, in order to strengthen the bonds of fraternity that exist in our region,” and calls for the “strengthening of intercultural and interreligious relations in order to achieve a higher level of mutual understanding between individuals of different origins, languages, cultures and religious beliefs.”

Another key point concerns the phenomenon of migration, to be treated with candor, prophetically denouncing atrocities as well as mistaken choices. The Florence Charter maintains that “migration policies in the Mediterranean and at the borders must always respect fundamental human rights.” This is where the Document on Human Fraternity had a momentum to recover, speaking “in the name of orphans, widows, refugees and exiles from their homes and countries; of all victims of wars, persecution and injustice; of the weak, of those who live in fear, of prisoners of war and the tortured in any part of the world, without distinction. In the name of the peoples who have lost their security, peace and common coexistence, becoming victims of destruction, ruin and wars.”

The forum sowed seeds that now, exercising in such trying times as these the theological virtue of hope – so dear to Giorgio La Pira – must find good soil in which to germinate and favorable waters in which to experiment along  new paths of human fraternity, according to the teaching of the encyclical Fratelli Tutti.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.5 art. 3, 0522: 10.32009/22072446.0522.3

[1].      A. Spadaro, “Tornare a essere popolari. Sette parole per il 2019”, in Civ. Catt. 2019 I 42f.

[2].      Cf. P. Bizzeti, “Mediterraneo, frontiera di pace”, ibid., 2020 II 56-67.

[3].      Cf. R. Cristiano, Figli dello stesso mare. Francesco e la nuova alleanza per il Mediterraneo, Rome, Castelvecchi, 2022.

[4].      A. Spadaro, “La Chiesa si fa colloquio. Il viaggio apostolico di papa Francesco in Marocco”, in Civ. Catt. 2019 II 159f.

[5].      See “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Life Together (Abu Dhabi, February 4, 2019)”, in Civ. Catt. En., April 2019, Our journal has published several in-depth reviews of this document.

[6].      The speech can be read at

[7].      Cf. L. Geronico, Ritorno ad Abramo. In viaggio con Francesco alle radici della fratellanza, Rome, Castelvecchi, 2021; A.. Spadaro, “Fraternity is stronger than fratricide. Pope Francis’ journey to Iraq”, in Civ. Catt. En., September 2021,

[8].      Cf. J. Joblin, “Verso un umanesimo mediterraneo”, in Civ. Catt. 2002 II 158-164.

[9]  .    A. Spadaro (ed), Essere mediterranei. Fratelli e cittadini del Mare Nostro, Milan, Ancora, 2020.

[10].    P. Parolin, “Essere mediterranei. Fratelli e cittadini del Mare Nostro”, in Civ. Catt. 2020 I 368-380.

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