Of all the challenges faced by the Vatican in organizing the 25th anniversary of the historic interreligious gathering in Assisi in 1986, the hardest was how to make it newsworthy. The 176 delegates—representing, said the Vatican, ”not only the world's religions, but all people of good will, everyone seeking the truth”—whom Pope Benedict XVI led by train from Rome to the town of St Francis were comprehensive in their diversity. But if the Christian delegations on October 27 included the top men—Pope Benedict himself, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I—the delegates from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and others included no obvious celebrities, or even organizations whose presence might have raised an eyebrow. Even the inclusion of four non-believers failed to create a stir, for it was not Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens standing with the pope but little-known academic philosophers.
In purely news terms, of course, 2011 couldn’t compare with the pure gold of the original 1986 gathering. The sight of Christian leaders standing in a semi-circle in the basilica dedicated to St Francis together with the Dalai Lama and a rainbow of sashes, robes and elaborate headgear was unprecedented. The 160 leaders of the great world religions called by Pope John Paul I did not “pray together,” exactly, but “came together in public to pray at the same time.” That distinction was lost on most observers, who still remember the ritual fires, the drums and the feathers, and the invocations of spirits. The scenes confirmed the fears of the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who famously boycotted the gathering.
But that first Assisi gathering caught the imagination of the world. Alarmed at the deep freeze in superpower relations, Pope John Paul II had summoned—as no one but a pope could—the spiritual energy of the world’s faiths, and put in train a movement among religions at the service of peace in the world. The theology was simple: the Catholic Church, whose task is to communicate the Gospel, seeks to further the global common good, and encourage the message of peace which is at the heart of every faith. And where better than in the town of il poverello, who had tamed the ferocious wolf of Gubbio, leap-frogged the walls of war and spoken to the Sultan?
If the 2011 gathering seemed less dramatic, it was partly because of the obscurity of the non-Christian delegates, and partly because the centerpiece of the 1986 action—the public act of prayer—was now missing. At the first Assisi réprise in 2002—when John Paul II, by now frail, again gathered the religious leaders to chase away the dark clouds of 9/11—the delegates prayed in their faith groups in different locations in Assisi, rather than in public. But prayer was still the point.
This time it was different. Rather than a day of prayer it was a “pilgrimage,” a time of “reflection and dialogue,” with each participant being assigned a room in a retreat house for “a time of silence for reflection and/or personal prayer.” The only public acts were speeches that were short and lacking in content.
Yet that did not stop a number of deities being invoked. “O infinite-bodied Lord! I see YOU in each hand and feet, in each eye and head, in each name and being,” prayed one Hindu delegate, while the Ifu and Yoruba representative began with an untranslated invocatory chant. Recalling his concern after 1986 to make clear that “there is no such thing . . . as a common concept of God or belief in God,” it must have been difficult for Pope Benedict to hear a swami announce that “truth is one” even though “professed in different ways.”
The other absentee at this year’s gathering was the Spirit of Assisi. The term was first used by Pope John Paul II when he received the 1986 delegates at an audience in Rome two days after the event. “Let us continue to spread the message of peace,” he told them; “let us continue to live the Spirit of Assisi.” The term, popularized by the Franciscans, has been used by Sant’Egidio at the interfaith gatherings—held “in the Spirit of Assisi” —they have organized every year since then. It was used by the founder of the Bose monastic movement, Enzo Bianchi, who wrote in La Stampa that the gathering of October 27 showed that Benedict XVI had “made his own the Spirit of Assisi,” which he described as the church’s “truly universal mission”, one demanding respect for all faiths and the religious path of each person. And the phrase is the title of an article in the Messenger of St Anthony by the Custodian of the Basilica of St Francis, Giuseppe Piemontese OFM Conv. And it was invoked, on 27 October, in the speech by Patriarch Bartholomew I, who described it as “the capacity of faiths in dialogue to infuse society with peace.”
Yet in the Pope’s addresses in Assisi and in the many documents and speeches in the run-up to the event by curial officials, including a long series of articles in Osservatore Romano, the term is carefully avoided. This reflects the view that, like “the Spirit of Vatican II,” it has been tainted by errors—in this case the “syncretistic interpretations” of 1986.
It wasn’t just Rome’s theological squeamishness that left Assisi III feeling flat but another absence, the spirit of community. Key to the organization of Assisi I and II were both Sant’Egidio and Focolare, movements of young Italians deeply committed to reconciliation across boundaries; it was their relationships which Cardinal Etchegaray drew upon in 1986 and 2002 in extending invitations to religious leaders. But while the movements were present on October 27—Focolare arranged the music and dance at the afternoon ceremony at the Basilica of St Francis; the founder and president of Sant’Egidio were both on the delegates’ train—the organization was this time firmly in the hands of the Curia. It meant that, despite warm embraces at the end, the atmosphere this time, and unlike 1986 and 2002, was mostly that of a conference or summit, rather than what Italians call un incontro.
This was reinforced by the presence of the “nonbelievers” among the delegates, included for the first time at the Assisi gatherings at the Pope’s request. The four academic humanists had been invited by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s Council for the New Evangelization, whose Courtyard of the Gentiles project aims to build bridges with atheists and secularists in post-Christian Europe. The speeches by the French-Bulgarian academic Julia Kristeva and by Guillermo Hurtado of Mexico made clear that these were “humanists in dialogue with believers” and therefore much more like searching agnostics than committed secularists.
And although there were only four of them, they seemed to be accorded a special place. After criticising both the distortion and the denial of God as lying behind modern violence, Pope Benedict’s main address—delivered at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli below Assisi—suddenly praised agnostics as “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace,” which was the title of the gathering. Agnostics, he said, suffered from God’s absence yet “are inwardly making their way towards him, in as much as they are seeking truth and goodness.” Just as he did recently in Germany, when he described agnostics as “closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine,’” Benedict XVI in Assisi suggested that the challenges of agnostics helped to purify the faith of believers. Their inability to find faith, he suggested, “is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God,” while the struggling and questioning of agnostics “is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.”
It soon became clear that the 25th anniversary of Assisi had been framed to support Pope Benedict’s “New Evangelization” strategy of connecting with post-Christian Europe. It is an ambition that is little by little coming to dominate his papacy, so that almost everything he does links to this goal. Pope Benedict wants to make an alliance with “open” secularists, to stand together against both religious and secularist fundamentalists.
In terms of the objectives of Assisi I, the inclusion of nonbelievers represents, on the hand, a broadening of the original coalition conceived by Pope John Paul II. It is an alliance of peace that now extends to people of goodwill, whether atheist, theist or polytheist.
But there is a risk that this new frame dilutes Pope John Paul II’s original intuition: that at a time when religion was taking a more public role, both as builder of justice and legitimator of violence, it was necessary to reaffirm the peace at the core of all true religion. That is why, whether it was the joint prayer of 1986 or the timetabled but separately located prayer of 2002, the point of the exercise was an essentially spiritual one—the opening of the heart of the world to the saving and healing power of God, however understood. This time the “witness of prayerful reflection,” suggests Michael Barnes, S.J., in Thinking Faith, “has given way to a more theological debate about the meaning of religion itself,” abandoning powerful symbolism in favour of “yet more routine speechifying.”
Can Assisi now be successfully recast as an alliance of goodwill and mutual interests? Can this new frame capture minds and hearts as did a spiritual humanism of peace?
Judging by the uplifting yet oddly uninspiring experience on October 27, the answer would have to be no; and that may be reflected in the muted media impact it made. It is always easier to say why an event made the news than why it failed to; and the fact that it was a commemoration, rather than a response to a global emergency, may partially account for the indifference. Or maybe the world’s religious leaders gathering for peace is no longer news because religions are no longer considered to be at war. Perhaps the Spirit of Assisi , in all its theological ambiguity, has become a commonplace, and no longer captures the imagination.
But many of those at the heart of the previous Assisi meetings fear that the vision behind them has been eclipsed. The 1986 event was an audacious, prophetic gesture, the intuition of a pope who saw what needed doing and acted. It was never intended to be other than a single event. But it set in train a movement, a distinctively religious contribution to peace in the world, that was never intended to bear too much theological scrutiny, but which people recognized as of God: expressed in symbols, a matter of the heart rather than the head. Twenty-five years later, Pope Benedict has reaffirmed that movement, both in the church and in the world, and set it on a new path. But too much effort to avoid theological ambiguity and subtract the spiritual may well have dampened the flame that has kept it burning all these years.