Rome Roundtable 2024
Steve Howard – Opening remarks

We are living through an unusual, perhaps exceptional, moment in modern history.  Pope Francis says ‘this feels more like the end of an epoch rather than just the end of an era’.

We are facing the existential question: what is it that humanity must change in order to have a sustainable planet for our future generations?

And what is our capacity and our will – this group of influential global citizens gathered around the table today, with all of our combined networks and powers to act – to make a positive difference, over and above the many individual and collective efforts you are already making?

The work of the Global Foundation is underpinned by ‘business with purpose’, that is leadership on issues affecting the global commons by those leaders in business and markets who are both capable and willing to help lead the process of change, in partnership with others. 

It is also ‘people-centred’, that is in believing that the ultimate destiny of humanity can only be best realised by building from the ground up, not only from the top down.  A ‘fair and just transition’, that we are committed to, means exactly what it says.

Many of you have been invited to join us in this room because this is what you already practice.  You are exemplars of the change that must become infectious, universal, the norm.  However, as good as your efforts are, you and we have much more do, to inspire and lead others, as there are pressures building in the opposite direction.

Our world is fracturing, into blocs, or opposing camps.  North vs South, West vs East.  If allowed to continue, it will not only threaten global prosperity, it will challenge the fundamental security of the human race – and sooner than we might care to think!  And this dark prospect collides with big signals being sent by our planet, back to us as humankind – we’re also faced with a re-calibration of how we live and share a finite planet together.

But, there is hope.  That’s why our work is also ‘faith-enabled’, for a very good reason.   One of the great inspirations for the Global Foundation is the figure of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy.  Last night, you saw a beautiful presentation about a project that we are supporting, for a small chapel in the woods of St Francis, outside the walls of Assisi, where he would retreat to connect with nature and pray.  Our ambition is to help the Mayor and Friars of Assisi to elevate the global potential of Assisi as a city where people can meet, in the spirit of St Francis, to dialogue about the very issues that he himself gave his life to – an integral ecology about the Earth, surrounded by a world at peace.

For those who think that St Francis was a humble tree-hugger, I ask you to consider this: in his time, 800 years ago, Christians and Muslims were at war in the Middle East.  Somehow, with no weapons, Francis made his way to Egypt, to meet with the Sultan. They negotiated a peace deal and the Sultan gifted Francis this beautiful decorated animal horn, that sits today in the Lower Basilica in Assisi.

I retold this story and showed this photo to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, second in command to Pope Francis when we last met, to illustrate our own intentions, not only to transact on issues affecting the planet, but also to transform outcomes, beginning by transforming ourselves.  Cardinal Parolin, as with Pope Francis himself, has been steadfast in recognising the significance and symmetry between our work and theirs. That is essentially why we are meeting in Rome, inspired by St Francis and also by his namesake, Pope Francis, whom we will meet on Wednesday.

You are all aware of Pope Francis’ outreach to other religions and to the wider world, as an activist for peace and a spirit of integral ecology.  But, lest you think that Pope Francis is talking in the clouds, let me remind you of this recent  quote, about reshaping multilateralism, that he released just ahead of the global climate conference last year, in an echo of the conclusions of the meeting that we ourselves co-convened and co-chaired at the Vatican a few months earlier.

Pope Francis said this:

‘More than saving the old multilateralism, it appears that the current challenge is to reconfigure and recreate it, taking into account the new world situation. I invite you to recognize that many groups and organizations within civil society help to compensate for the shortcomings of the international community, its lack of coordination in complex situations, and its lack of attention to fundamental human rights’.

So, the ball is firmly in our court and we can choose to sink or swim together.  Here, over these next days, we are aiming for a new sense of cohesion that crosses over all boundaries, for win-win, ‘not in a dialogue of the deaf’, as Pope Francis says, but rather through respectful and frank exchange, that leads to us walking together, to commitments, to actions and to subsequent outcomes.

As well as hope, there is also a spirit of optimism, that in having people of ability and goodwill meeting and aligning their paths, we can make a difference.  We are all here because we believe that networks such as this, people such as you, can together make such a difference, find common cause and take and influence actions that will help to change the trajectory of history.

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