Remembering Assisi After 20 Years
Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II convened what has become one of the more significant symbolic and substantive events of his eventful pontificate. On Oct. 26, 1986, the participants in the World Day of Prayer for Peace gathered under an overcast and sometimes rainy sky in Assisi, Italy, “to be together to pray” for peace. The event was the brainchild of the pontiff who in the last days of his life said, “So long as I have breath within me, I will never cease to cry out for peace.” For some time he had been thinking of a possible interreligious gesture, convinced that men and women of faith and religious commitment must find a way to express it effectively. Any effort to marshal representatives of the many great religious traditions must be able to express the gift of peace present in the inner core of each tradition. Prayer to the Almighty provided that. The result was a day of prayer rich with symbols and actions. Most of the symbols inspired, but others raised questions that continue to be discussed.
More than a year earlier, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, had convened a meeting at Palazzo San Calisto in Rome with representatives from both sections of the Secretariat of State and from three pontifical councils—for Christian Unity, for Interreligious Dialogue and for Justice and Peace. Bishop (later Cardinal) Jorge Mejía and I, as secretary and under secretary of this last dicastery (as such groups were called), were part of this assembly from the beginning. At the meeting Cardinal Etchegaray outlined the pope’s proposal and invited us all to become a core group to organize and oversee the World Day of Prayer, each dicastery according to its own specific competence. The pope left the specifics to the planning group, although he decided which aspects of our proposals would be implemented.
That first meeting was rather freewheeling. Everyone was encouraged to offer ideas and suggestions and to think beyond the Vatican’s usual modes of operation and perspectives. Cardinal Etchegaray has a gift for leading such discussions. In subsequent meetings, the group reached an easy consensus on the shape and content of the day, despite moments of tension and disagreement.
Among the controversial suggestions was a proposal to invite activist peace groups, including at least one well-known front for a Marxist government. The immediate negative reaction of two of our number to this idea helped clarify that the gathering was to be led by leaders of religions and faith groups, not by any political party or activist groups. These latter had dominated public discourse; still fresh in our memories were debates and rallies in Europe about the U.S. installation of cruise and Pershing missiles there. That issue was dealt with handily, as was the determination of what day of the week would be best for the gathering. The group excluded Friday and Saturday, principal worship days for Muslims and Jews. When a participant suggested Sunday, others pointed out that we ought to offer Christianity the same sensitivity we showed other faiths.
Coming Together to Pray
When the respective dicasteries (Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue) began contacting their dialogue partners, however, a much more difficult matter lay at hand, one that concerned the whole project of prayer together. At root lies a set of theological questions that continue to this day: How does a Christian whose prayer is “through Jesus Christ” pray with those who do not recognize Christ as lord and savior? How does a Jew pray with those who do not belong to the covenant of the chosen people? What of Buddhists and their approach to prayer? Shintoists and their vision of the world seen from their Japanese roots? These are not abstract questions. They touch the identity of a religion and its understanding of God. The dialogue partners of the two Vatican dicasteries were raising these very issues. Those of us within the Catholic tradition, for example, had to ensure that the common prayer not be syncretistic or reductionist, thereby relativizing our own faith in Jesus, the unique savior of all humankind.
The pope himself resolved this major issue. Apprised of the objections of Christians and non-Christians alike, Pope John Paul II first expressed his understanding of the objections’ legitimacy. Then he offered a formula that proved to be of immense help in clarifying what was and was not intended by the prayer for peace. The pope proposed that we were not gathering “to pray together,” but we were gathering “to be together to pray.” The prayer to be offered would be neither syncretist nor reductionist. Each group or delegation would offer prayer in accord with and reflective of its particular prayer tradition. Only the adherents of each religious group would be actively involved in their respective prayer. The rest of us would be present as witnesses who believe both in God and in the efficacy of prayer. Our presence was an act of solidarity with one another as we witnessed the richness and variety of prayer offered to the Almighty for peace, that deep desire of the human heart.
This clarification dissolved the apprehensions many had expressed. Our discussions began to move forward, although not always without complication. The Chief Rabbi of Rome, the late Elio Toaff, so close to Pope John Paul personally, wanted to be part of the conversation but wrestled with issues at the heart of Jewish identity. During the preparatory period the exchange on these points helped to deepen understanding between the Jewish community and the Secretariat for Religious Relations With Jews. The organizers also faced challenges regarding the Muslim leaders’ various expressions of faith: How could we respect each group within Islam and ensure that the prayerful voice of Islamic tradition would be properly heard? The goodwill of all the religious leaders and their enormous respect for Pope John Paul II helped. Still, each of these and other challenges had to be examined seriously and resolved honestly before we could offer the world a truthful witness through our prayer.
The planners divided the day itself into three “moments.” In the morning, about 64 religious leaders gathered with the pope at the Portiuncula Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi. Here Pope John Paul II welcomed all and set the tone for the day of prayer and fasting—two practices that united us. Then the religious leaders, with members of their own faith, dispersed to select sites in Assisi to pray and reflect in accord with their tradition. Churches and chapels regularly used for the celebration of Mass were not used as worship space for communities other than Christian. Assisi is so rich in beautiful places for meeting that it was easy to find appropriate sites for each religious group.
The Christians assembled in the cathedral church of the Diocese of Assisi. There the pope, flanked by the representative of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and by Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, led a service of prayer, hymns and reflection. He proclaimed the commitment to peace of all who turned to Jesus, the prince of peace, and asked that he might make them “instruments of his peace.” John Paul II’s conviction was clear: “Peace bears the name of Jesus Christ.” Our prayer to the Father is through Jesus Christ.
In my judgment the pope’s homily that day was one of the most beautiful reflections on peace he ever gave. He focused on John 20, which describes the appearance of the risen Christ in the Upper Room. The Lord shows his disciples the marks of his crucifixion, the pope noted, the marks now glorified that he carries with him into eternity. The pope then applied this image to us as disciples of Jesus, who must bring the marks of our efforts at peacemaking before the Lord on the day of judgment.
By midafternoon rain was falling lightly, and the prefect of the papal household asked me to make a quick decision. The climax of the day was scheduled to be held outdoors in the lower piazza of the Basilica of San Francesco. Would the rain ruin it? Would going inside dissipate some of the impact of our witness? With trepidation, I decided to stay outdoors. So we started walking from the cathedral toward San Francesco.
I have since seen videos that show what a moving moment it was. Believers in all the major religions of the world took to the streets of Assisi from various corners and buildings. We walked in prayer and silence to “be together to pray” outside the tomb of the Poverello. There on an immense stage—the backdrop was a frieze of the word “peace” in multiple languages—Pope John Paul II stood at the center of a semicircle of religious leaders, with Christians on his right and others on his left. Members of each religious tradition had an opportunity to pray in a separate squared-off area. As each religious group prayed, the rest of us on the stage or in the piazza followed the prayers attentively, silently. The prayers of each tradition, which had been ascending to God throughout the day, were now completed through the respectful witness we offered to one another’s prayerful commitment to peace.
Later we broke the fast and adjourned to the great refectory of San Francesco for a simple buffet. Byzantine bishops, the Dalai Lama, the Native American John Pretty on Top, Jains, Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians—all mingled together to share this meal with Pope John Paul II.
One sidelight: an animist wise man had caught cold and was put to bed in the Sacro Convento. In one day he had for the first time in his life experienced riding in a car, a train and a plane and an October rain in Assisi. It had left him weak. He insisted, however, in getting out of bed that evening to thank the pope personally through a symbolic dance of respect—a respect the Holy Father warmly reciprocated before returning to Rome.
The day, awash with impressive visual images, received wide media coverage. As a symbolic gesture it had immense impact and elicited immediate positive reaction from almost every quarter of the globe. Politicians and world leaders praised the pope and other religious leaders for their act of solidarity on behalf of peace.
Prayer, an Alternative Action for Peace
Weeks later, having been briefed on the day’s impact on world opinion, John Paul II interpreted the meaning of the day in a private conversation. While political and world leaders carry the first and greatest responsibility for world peace, he said, they cannot do it alone. Every sincere effort of theirs needs to be encouraged and supported by a wide public. For too long men and women of faith, like all men and women of goodwill, have felt frustrated in finding ways to express their desire for and commitment to peace. Ideologues and special-interest groups resort to protests and marches that too often end in violence, polarization and increased anger. Now men and women of faith had taken the initiative. By gathering in Assisi “to be together to pray” for peace, they had provided an alternative to marches and protests: prayer is the alternative. We must continue to show that prayer is the most powerful tool we share to advance the peace that ultimately is a gift from God.
Not everyone was pleased with the day. It had raised some serious questions about occasions of interreligious gatherings of prayer. Spokesmen for Marxist Communism, which would fall soon afterward, scoffed at the day as empty and meaningless. The late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre criticized it as syncretism at best, heresy at its worst. “L’esprit d’Assisi” became one of his favorite expressions to label what he considered the false premises of the Second Vatican Council in the field of ecumenism.
With a moderation lacking in Lefebvre, some bishops and theologians have raised serious issues about what such an experience means for dialogue and what it says about prayer in one’s own tradition and prayer in common. Pope John Paul took such questions seriously. Those involved in ongoing ecumenical dialogue and in interreligious dialogue know that such questions cannot be dealt with lightly or dismissed as peripheral. We must avoid syncretism and religious reductionism. The prayer of a Christian is offered to the Father through Jesus Christ, who has broken down the barriers between “Jew and Greek.” “He is our peace.”
Pope Benedict XVI, too, is deeply conscious of the care we must take to be faithful to our own prayer tradition while respecting the specificity of the prayer of other religions. Speaking in Cologne to Muslim leaders, he said that true commitment to dialogue must continue, with mutual respect and with an adherence to truth.
The final word belongs to Pope John Paul II, however, who concluded the day of prayer with a discourse, in which he said: “I profess here anew my conviction that in Jesus Christ, as savior of all, true peace is to be found. What we have done today at Assisi, praying and witnessing to our commitment to peace, we must do every day of our life. For what we have done today is vital for the world. If the world is going to continue and men and women are to survive in it, the world cannot do without prayer.”