The Assisi challenge: to be sheep among wolves

[ASSISI, ITALY] I've arrived in the home town of St Francis to await the arrival here of Pope Benedict and more than 200 faith leaders who tomorrow will deepen the commitment of religion to peace. The event will commemorate the historic first such gathering called by Pope John Paul II on 27 October 1986, when the world faced a deepening stand-off between the US and the Soviet Union. John Paul II repeated the event in January 2002, just months after the 9/11 attacks had created another terrifying threat to world peace.

The idea on both occasions was twofold: to make it harder for religion to be linked to violence, and to commit religious leaders - there were 60 at the first gathering -- to a "spiritual humanism of peace" inspired by what became known, after that first 1986 gathering, as the "Spirit of Assisi". It was a bold, imaginative act by John Paul II, the kind of symbolic gesture that perhaps only a pope is capable of organizing; and all the more powerful for taking place in the town associated with perhaps the greatest peacemaker in Christian history.  


While here reporting for The Tablet on the 2002 meeting, I was taken by the famous story of St Francis and his famous taming of the Wolf of Gubbio, seeing it  as a powerful metaphor for the way in which faith can build peace. To cut the story very short, St Francis understands why the wolf is terrorizing the people of Gubbio, and offers him a lifetime of food in exchange for his agreeing to abandon his violence. In a touching conclusion to the story, the wolf assents to the pact by placing its paw in the friar's hand. 

In the article I wrote at the time, I said I was sorry not to have had time to visit Gubbio. So this time I built in a couple of days in the Umbrian hill town to pay homage to the famous encounter, eventually locating this gorgeous monument in the outskirts of Gubbio. There were flowers in the wolf's neck. 

I wouldn't have mentioned this but for reading Pope Benedict's address today in Rome in preparation for tomorrow, a fine meditation on the link between Jesus' powerlessness and his peacemaking.

"Christians," he said, "must never fall into the temptation of becoming wolves for it is not with power, force or violence that Christ's kingdom of peace grows, but with the giving of self, with love carried to its extreme consequences, even towards our enemies". 

The Pope, it turns out, was alluding to famous words of St John Chrysostom: "As long as we remain sheep, we overcome. Even though we may be surrounded by a thousand wolves, we overcome and are victorious. But as soon as we are wolves, we are beaten."

In Italian, the "temptation" Pope Benedict speaks of is even more graphic: la tentazione di diventare lupi tra i lupi, literally "a wolf among wolves". 

The message for religious leaders is clear: in a wolf-run world, people of faith must be sheep if peace is to stand a chance. St Francis understood that very well -- which is why he constantly resisted property and status or anything which would feed the self. 

Looking over the list of participants in tomorrow's events -- the final roll-call is still not settled -- it might be interesting to speculate about which faith leaders have what one might call "attachments" to state power (the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, for example, or representatives of various Middle-Eastern royal families) and to what extent these cripple their prophetic capacity for peace. 

Tomorrow begins, by the way, with the Pope arriving with the other delegates by train from the Vatican's seldom-used station. They will gather at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli down in the valley, where there will be a video recalling the 1986 meeting. There will be speeches by, among others, Patriarch Bartholomew I, Archbishop Rowan Williams, Rabbi David Rosen, a representative of the International Conference of Islamic Schools, and a non-believer, Professor Julia Kristeva. 

After lunch there will be time for "silence, reflection or personal prayer" for the delegates in the convent of the Basilica before the delegates head up for a gathering outside the Basilica of St Francis here in the main town, where they make a  joint commitment to peace.

It is unlikely to include a pledge to being sheep among wolves.

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david power
7 years 2 months ago

You have written in the past about the relationshop between Berlusca and the Vatican and so the Holy Father himself may not be such  a prophetic voice in Italy at least.The every utterance of the Vatican is measured there not to disturb in any way the money that pours in via the "otto per mille" tax campaign .
It was the same with the Popes in the past and the mafia.The Christian Democrats were hand in glove with the men of honour and depended on them for the votes to stay in power.The expression "vote early and vote often" was practically invented in Sicily.Pope John Paul waited about 15 years to "notice" the biggest scandal destroying the beautiful country.This was when tangentopoli had happened and the DC was finished completely and so the coast was clear for a "heroic" stand.
Anyway, enjoy the beautiful town of Assisi and make sure you bring a scarf as the wind blows hard there at times.   
ed gleason
7 years 2 months ago
I've posted this before, but Gubbio can be present in every inner-city as we have done at my parish in San Francisco.. The tourists complained that the homeless are the 'wolves'. not so when in the Church and acknowledged as Francis showed.. .    look for Days and Hours 7 minutes
Anne Chapman
7 years 2 months ago
- it might be interesting to speculate about which faith leaders have what one might call ''attachments'' to state power (the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, for example, or representatives of various Middle-Eastern royal families) and to what extent these cripple their prophetic capacity for peace.

The final loss of the papal states during the era of Pius IX, a man who condemned democracy and advocated a Roman Catholic theocracy for all nations, may have been the best thing to happen to the Roman Catholic church since the time of Constantine. However, the church may need to continue to divest itself of its imperial trappings and governance before it can be truly a prophetic voice.

The allusion to John Chrysostom is a bit unfortunate, given that his Eight Homilies Against the Jews incited Christian wolves to violence against the Jewish people, not only in the 4th century, but on and off in the following centuries, including in 20th century Germany.


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