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Assisi 2011: Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace

“Assisi alone is enough reason to beatify Pope John Paul II” was the headline of the Catholic Herald in the UK last April, a fortnight before the late pope was approved for veneration on the calendar of the diocese of Rome and in Poland as one of the “Blessed”. Karol Wojtyła became a pope of many firsts, and John Allen, Jr. has recently quipped that Joseph Ratzinger has become a pope of seconds – but that these second times can be as important as the first.

In part, this is because it gives certain sustainability to an event or program, showing that it was not a personal proclivity of the past pope, doomed to die with him. This has been true of World Youth Day, and now of the Assisi pilgrimage for peace.

Another aspect is this: Pope Wojtyła was an actor, a master of stage and screen. He had the timing and the panache to make big waves with spectacular images and actions. One curial cardinal was asked, at a meeting of his dicastery, “When will we see some of these grand images of [the pope’s] turn into policy?” The cardinal leaned to his secretary and was overheard to say, “Come si dice ‘senza fiato’ in inglese? (How do you say, ‘we are out of breath’ in English?) … We can barely keep up with him!”

The current bishop of Rome is a theologian, a teacher, and an introvert. He takes a few of these grand points, and is digging deeper, giving them ‘staying power’ in the system and with reflection. In the process, he is adding his own spin on things, too. Much ado was made of the fact that this time around, the fourth gathering of interreligious leaders to Assisi for the cause of peace, there would be no ‘common prayer’ so that not even the most rigorous of the right-wing could cry foul (or so it was thought).

Never mind that there was never ‘common prayer’ in the first case, either. Coming together to pray is different than coming to pray together. In 1986, the day concluded with a series of prayers, each religious group leading its own prayer, while other participants looked on in respectful silence. It was close enough that even Ratzinger was reserved about the appropriateness at the time.

(In the annals of the bizarre, and as a reminder of how much of Italian journalism at the time was about inflammatory rhetoric more than fact, one Italian reporter made claims that African animists sacrificed a chicken on the altar of the Basilica of Santa Chiara, inciting charges of sacrilege and syncretism. The fact that the basilica was closed and no such act ever took place does not stop certain elements from bringing it up from time to time to discredit the Spirit of Assisi and Pope John Paul II.)

This year, the day started at the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli with a series of 10 scheduled talks on peace, after an introduction from Cardinal Turkson of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which organized this year’s event. The appeals were offered by four Christians, followed by five non-Christian religious leaders, and one ‘non-believer’. There was a confused moment as the apparent Muslim guest was brought to the lectern, refused the notes he was offered, and went on to explain in Arabic that he was not the person listed on the program, but offered a reflection anyway. Only after the last scheduled speaker was the original Muslim representative produced to deliver his address; I still do not know who the first Muslim presenter was or what else he said.

Before the day, Fr. Tom had asked what language the day would be presented in. Based on my experiences in Rome for major liturgies and events, I indicated Italian, with only smatterings of others. I was wrong. Throughout the day, the three cardinals all spoke in English. In the morning, it was clear that efforts were made to be as universally understood as possible: English was used by the Anglican, WCC, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, African animist religious representatives. French was spoken by the Orthodox and agnostic. The Buddhist representative spoke in Korean, and the unplanned Muslim speaker was in Arabic. In the afternoon, native languages were used, and worth noting that Arabic was not just “the Muslim language” but also that of the Syrian Orthodox and the Lutheran representatives.

Instead of a series of prayers lead by different religious groups, this time the afternoon session in the lower piazza of the Basilica San Francesco included a series of solemn commitments to peace by assorted religious leaders. This was introduced by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and lead by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I. Ten religious leaders and another non-believer made their solemn commitments, followed by an address of Pope Benedict XVI, and closed with an invitation to exchange a sign of peace by Cardinal Kurt Koch of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews).

There is no question that it was a beautiful day, and inspiring simply to bring all of these people together as a witness for peace, the positive contribution of people of faith to the world, and even of the potential to overcome the modern myth of a necessary animosity between “people of faith” and “people of science” – ie, secularity.

Yet, there also is no question in my mind that something was lost with the over-emphasized intentional lack of prayer. How can a ‘pilgrimage’ be true to its nature without prayer? How can you gather religious leaders together, and tell them not to pray? This year, there were not even the sequestered opportunities for prayer that marked the last such event, in 2002, held in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, much less the series of prayers offered in public that marked the first event 25 years ago.

There was a moment of silence in the afternoon session for everyone to “pray or commit their thoughts to peace” – on one hand, very hospitable for even those who do not pray. On the other, I think the type of prayer offered in 1986 lends itself less to accusations of syncretism (exaggerated in either case), where each tradition is allowed to be true to itself, rather than having a single, mixed, everybody-do-what-you-want moment or prayer and positive thoughts.

Some of the speakers offered prayers spontaneously as part of their delivery, others quoted scriptures.

For our own part, an unplanned opportunity presented itself. In what must be a first for a papal event, the closing ceremony actually finished half an hour early, and the restaurant we planned for a quick pizza before returning to Rome was not yet open. With half an hour to kill, our group split in various directions, some to shop, some to wander, some to pray. About ten of us wandered up to the 13th century Church of Santo Stefano, a beautifully simple church whose bells were said to have miraculously pealed at the moment of Francis’ death.

As the Christians prayed in the front of the church, some of our Muslim pilgrims prepared for their own evening prayer, at the back of the church. As Christians finished, instead of walking out past the praying Muslims, most stopped and waited as respectful observers. It was just a few minutes, it was spontaneous, and it made the day a genuine pilgrimage of truth, for peace.

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2 Comments

  1. […] Pilgrimage of Peace, Pilgrimage of Truth: 25th Anniversary of Assisi gathering of World’s Religiou… […]

  2. […] of the first interreligious day of prayer for peace with Pope Benedict XVI, which was dubbed ”Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.” Two cornerstone pieces of the original event were missing however – prayer, and the […]

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