On the Road to Assisi

I have been waiting for this:

Monday, April 4, 2011
VATICAN CITY, 2 APR 2011 (VIS) – The Holy See Press Office today published the following English-language communique:

“On 1 January 2011, after the Angelus, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he wished to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the historic meeting that took place in Assisi on 27 October 1986, at the wish of the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II. On the day of the anniversary, 27 October this year, the Holy Father intends to hold a ‘Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world’, making a pilgrimage to the home of St. Francis and inviting fellow Christians from different denominations, representatives of the world’s religious traditions and, in some sense, all men and women of good will, to join him once again on this journey.

“The Day will take as its theme: ‘Pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace’. Every human being is ultimately a pilgrim in search of truth and goodness. Believers too are constantly journeying towards God: hence the possibility, indeed the necessity, of speaking and entering into dialogue with everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, without sacrificing one’s own identity or indulging in forms of syncretism. To the extent that the pilgrimage of truth is authentically lived, it opens the path to dialogue with the other, it excludes no-one and it commits everyone to be a builder of fraternity and peace. These are the elements that the Holy Father wishes to place at the centre of reflection.

“For this reason, as well as representatives of Christian communities and of the principal religious traditions, some figures from the world of culture and science will be invited to share the journey – people who, while not professing to be religious, regard themselves as seekers of the truth and are conscious of a shared responsibility for the cause of justice and peace in this world of ours”.

The communique affirms that “the delegations will set off from Rome by train on the morning of 27 October, together with the Holy Father. Upon arrival in Assisi, they will make their way to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where the previous meetings will be recalled and the theme of the Day will be explored in greater depth. Leaders of some of the delegations present will make speeches and the Holy Father will likewise deliver an address”.

There will then be a simple lunch, followed by a moment of silence for individual reflection and prayer. Later, all those present in Assisi will make a “pilgrimage” to the Basilica of Saint Francis, “in silence, leaving room for personal meditation and prayer”. The final part of the Day will include “a solemn renewal of the joint commitment to peace”.

“In preparation for this Day, Pope Benedict XVI will preside over a prayer vigil at St. Peter’s the previous evening, together with the faithful of the diocese of Rome. Particular Churches and communities throughout the world are invited to organise similar times of prayer”.

The communique concludes by highlighting that “the Pope asks the Catholic faithful to join him in praying for the celebration of this important event and he is grateful to all those who will be able to be present in St. Francis’ home town to share this spiritual pilgrimage”.
OP/ VIS 20110404 (560)
Published by VIS – Holy See Press Office – Monday, April 04, 2011

Just last night, at the last session of our Anima Education “Christian Traditions” course, we were looking at a Vatican TV production of the history of ecumenical engagement (“Ut Unum Sint”). It had quite a bit of footage of both the 1986 and 2000 meetings in Assisi. I told the class that it would be interesting to see how Pope Benedict would arrange the upcoming meeting in October, given his criticism of the John Paul II events.

I think it most notable that in the BXVI format of the pilgrimage, we have:

1) “figures from the world of culture and science” included – this places the emphasis of the meeting on cultural expression rather than religious truth – particularly notable given that at the beginning of his pontificate, the Holy Father temporarily combined the role of the President for the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the President for the Pontifical Council for Culture.

2) “the previous meetings will be recalled and the theme of the Day will be explored in greater depth”: this indicates that the upfront-vocal-guest-star-speaker focus (to give it a broad description) will be in a dialogue session rather than in the actual prayers offered by of the various participants

3) The prayer aspect of the pilgrimage is described in two places as “a moment of silence for individual reflection and prayer” and, in the Basilica of Saint Francis, a “silence, leaving room for personal meditation and prayer”. In otherwords, no one will be offering any ceremony or rite from their religious tradition. All will be together in silence.

For an example of the latter model of interfaith prayer, one could recall the moment of silence Pope Benedict spent side by side with the Grand Mufti of Turkey in the Blue Mosque on his visit to Constantinople. Silent prayer, as a valid way of “praying together”, is in fact suggested by the Archdiocese of Melbourne’s “Promoting Interfaith Relations” guidelines.

The suggestion that there be a vigil at St Peter’s the previous day to prepare for the meeting is also, I think, significant. This in fact might provide a model for the other religious groups as well. Each should gather in their own place with their own people on the night before to offer prayers in their own way, before travelling together to the place of pilgrimage in the morning to offer silent prayer in the way that one is able.

I think this is a model that could be recreated in various places in conjunction with the October 27 event in Assisi. It is significantly different from the previous Assisi engagements.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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23 Responses to On the Road to Assisi

  1. Terra says:

    Good post David. I agree that this is a chance to remake what it means to have an Assisi event, and the rules of engagement set up here all look good!

  2. Marcel says:

    I fail to see, so far, how this event is significantly different from the previous meetings. People from false religions will gather and there does not appear to be any intention to explicitly invite them to convert to the one true faith. Fiddling at the margins does not really address the central flaw of the engagement; namely that the Assissi prayer gatherings have always posed more of a problem on the ‘ommission’ rather than ‘commission’ side (although there was plenty of scandals committed at the first incarnation of the event)..

    Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s what you don’t say that is the issue…

    • Schütz says:

      If I understand you properly, Marcel, you are arguing that Catholics should not cooperate or interact with non-Catholics in any way or for any purpose other than to:
      1) denounce their religion or beliefs as false
      2) invite them to become Catholics

      This is a little like saying a boy should never talk a girl except
      1) to point out all the failings of her family
      2) to propose marriage

      And perhaps you fail to appreciate the delicate matter that evangelisation can be in some circumstances. Just as when a boy seeks to woo the object of his affection, a gentle, open, obligation free conversation can lead to happy results!

      • Tony says:

        And … brace yourself, Marcel … ‘boys’ can talk to ‘girls’ for no other reason than having a chat.

        And … this may be a bridge too far … ‘boys’ can actually learn something about the world when they speak to ‘girls’.


        Smelling salts someone!

        • Gareth says:

          So, according to your logic – what is a Catholic meant to learn from a vodoo witch doctor?

          • Tony says:

            Er … no Gareth … that’s your logic.

            Honestly Gareth, you have to take the time to read the whole string and then think about how a metaphor — David’s metaphor, BTW — is being used. Then respond.

            So, unless PB16’s call to … fellow Christians from different denominations, representatives of the world’s religious traditions and, in some sense, all men and women of good will … equates to ‘witch doctors’ — and, don’t get me wrong, you are entitled to think that! — then it’s not ‘my logic’ that’s the problem.

            • Gareth says:

              Come on Tony, you know most people’s inability to quite understand just what the heck the first Assisi prayer meeting was trying to achieve stems from the fact that ‘priests from traditional African religions’ (i.e. Vodoo witch doctors) were included in the list of ‘representatives from the world’s religious traditions’ and then you want us to buy some metaphor about boys talking to girls?

              I for one am not in the camp of outright condemening Assisi as some havem but on the other hand I think it is a bit rich for the average Catholic in the pew who doesnt quite know what on earth is going on when they see images of the Pope lined up with his fellow friends from different ‘traditions’ to be given some weird explanation about boys talking to girls??

              Either the whole Assisi business is clearly explained to the faithful on just what precisely is trying to be acheieved or not.

              Now seeing you have expressed so much ‘concern’ about the new translastion of the Mass being properly communicated to the faithful and for the people in the pews to have ‘our say’, I think it is only fair to follow the same sentiment on prayer meetings with witch doctors.

            • Tony says:

              Gareth … concentrate … IT’S NOT MY METAPHOR … it’s David’s.

              And David was responding to Marcel.

              Niether David, Marcel or I mentioned anything about, nor commented on, ‘witchdoctors’. That’s totally your idea, so take responsibility for it yourself.

              Notwithstanding all of those facts Gareth, my response was clearly tongue-in-cheek.

              So again, if you have a problem with ‘witchdoctors’, take it up with David.

            • Gareth says:

              Tony, stop playing immature games (as usual) – you knew exactly what was meant.

              The use of the example vodoo witch doctors to constitute ‘girls’ being used in the metaphor used here was not an extreme example to exaggerate – it was a very real example to demonstrate that the metaphor of boys talking to girls was not a very good one, since I would only feel comfortable with ‘boys” talking to ‘girls’ in the context used to mean Catholics entering into conversation with other baptised Christians, not the extreme of what we have seen at previous Assisi meetings, where vodoo witch doctors have not only been present, they have been seen in images in entering into prayer with the Pope, something that I and many other Catholics consider ‘taking things a bit too far’

              I take issue with activities such as Assisi because such events are never really explained properly to the faithful who are left wondering what is going on – but I suppose you don’t really care about the concerns of the average Catholic, unless it fits your own bias view (e.g. your song and dance about the new Mass translastion would be admirable if you showed equal concern for issues that Catholics are confused about on the other end of the spectrum).

            • Tony says:

              The use of the example vodoo witch doctors to constitute ‘girls’ being used in the metaphor used here was not an extreme example to exaggerate …

              Quite possibly, but I didn’t do that, you did. Despite you telling me otherwise, I didn’t have it mind and, while he can certainly speak for himself, I don’t think David had it in mind either.

              But I still don’t see why I have to defend a metaphor that’s not mine, or a particular take on the metaphor that’s all yours.

              That’s more than enough of this tedious string, Gareth.

              (I suspect David will agree!)

            • Gareth says:

              considering you are willing to forget (or ignore, I don’t know) your original lecture in response to Marcel that boys can learn from girls which I took to mean Catholics could learn from other ‘traditions’ present at Assisi, I am willing to move on from the post, albeit with not much faith in vodoo doctors the ‘girls’ *really* teaching us dumb Catholics the ‘boys’ about the true God or true worship or headless chickens…

            • Schütz says:

              Come now, you two. Settle down.

              Gareth, if the possibility of scandal is real – and I don’t know how real it really is – then we have to be clear about what this event is seeking to achieve and what kind of interaction will take place.

              Keep in mind, Gareth, what this event is about. It is about peace between all the peoples, nations and cultures of the world. It is therefore appropriate that all the peoples, nations and cultures of the world be involved.

              If you don’t like my “boy/girl” analogy (and obviously you don’t) think along the lines of “diplomacy”. Think perhaps of the way, in the political field, the President of the United States has the power to call a diplomatic conference of people’s around the world. He is able, because of his pre-eminent position in the political world, to invite other world leaders to come to his table, and they will come. If he is seeking to resolve an issue, he doesn’t just invite those who are his political allies, but he invites others to the table too.

              The Pope is acting as a pre-eminent religious leader. When he offers an invitation, the other leaders come to him. It is very significant, is it not, that they are prepared to come to a Christian shrine of a Christian saint to stand with a Christian leader? Is this not, in some way, a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of all nations coming to worship at the temple in Jerusalem?

              To take the analogy further, the President of the United States does not invite the leader of some tiny tinpot regime somewhere to come and teach him about democracy. But that is not to say that he will not learn something from the other leader by their interaction. Have we anything to learn from other religious traditions? No, not if by that you mean there is something deficient in Catholic dogma as regards the Truth which leads to salvation. But we can learn something about ourselves, and about them, when we interact. This learning is not without value, and the interaction is not a negative thing.

            • Gareth says:

              David: Have we anything to learn from other religious traditions.

              Gareth: Hi David,

              Regarding my thoughts on Assisi prayer meetings, the point I am trying to make is ‘how far is too far?’.

              When the Church talks of gestures/learning from other religious traditions, I (and some others) take it to mean at the very least, amongst baptised Christian traditions or major established religions/philosophies.

              The ‘invited’ crowd for the first Assisi meeting seemed to go beyond these boundaries (e.g. vodoo priests).

              Whilst not falling into the camp of some Catholics that would consider Assisi a total scandal, I do think there is a point to be made that in some certain ecumenical gestures, a line can be crossed and the whole experience leaves more Catholics confused rather than feeling that anything is really being achieved.

  3. An Liaig says:

    “…what is a Catholic meant to learn from a vodoo witch doctor?”

    Don’t really know Gareth, I’ve never spoken to one but it would sure be one interesting conversation.

  4. Hannah says:

    Thanks David for the post. Its good. Have been too busy to take note.
    However I would like to remind those that are anti this meeting, that Jesus Himself walked among those who did not see who He was. He walked and dined and spoke and preached among those who were not of “the people of israel” So should we encounter with all manner of peoples? Yes. I am also reminded that Jesus has said that he has many flock not of this fold and those He must tend to also. What fantastic Popes we had and have. Bless them

  5. John Nolan says:

    Assisi 1986 was an error of judgement on JP II’s part and a cause of scandal. Why Pope Benedict should wish to commemorate it is beyond me unless he wants to retrospectively sanitise it in the year of his predecessor’s beatification. I admired John Paul but rerun the 1986 footage and you can only feel embarrassed for him. The thing about truly great men is that their weaknesses are more obvious than is the case with lesser mortals (think Winston Churchill). JPII’s weakness was a predilection for grandstanding.

    • Schütz says:

      John, there has been a development in the methodology of interreligious interaction, just as there has been in ecumenical relations. There was a lot of experimenting in early days – and 1986 WAS “early” as far as specifically interfaith dialogue goes. I think we can see what JPII did at Assisi in 1986 as part of that “experiment”. You may or may not think it appropriate for a Pope to “experiment” in this way, but Pope’s are not infallible in their actions, and at the same time, every Pope is a prisoner to some extent of his age. So what I see BXVI doing, is advancing the methodology of interfaith dialogue a couple of degrees. He is not so much “santising” as “honing” the previous Assisi encounters. He doesn’t want to close down interfaith engagement, but model an appropriate way of doing it. In this, he too may ultimately be judged to be mistaken. But I think we can, for now, give him (as we gave JPII on this matter) the benefit of the doubt.

      • Tony says:

        I may be misreading you, David, but you seem to be having a bob each way.

        Assisi 1986 was an error of judgement on JP II’s part and a cause of scandal.

        Is that a statement you agree with?

        It always seems to me that ’cause of scandal’ is one of those phrases that sounds impressive but means very little.

        It seems to me that a Pope, being so much the ‘face of the Church’, is just about always going to ’cause a scandal’ to someone.

  6. John Nolan says:

    Even before Assisi 1 took place, the late Achbishop Lefebvre appealed to Rome to think again. The SSPX has already voiced its concern over Assisi 2011. It may not matter to the church in Australia, America or the UK whether or not SSPX is fully reconciled (although you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between Bishop Fellay and Cardinal Burke when it comes to doctrine and liturgy) but it does matter in France.

    Internal unity must surely trump inter-religious dialogue. The Assisi project, however well-meaning, is damaged goods. In my opinion, and it is shared by many, the HF has been badly advised.

    • Tony says:

      ‘Badly advised’? I don’t think so, John!

      Whatever any of us might think of him, good or bad, he’s a big boy and if anyone has a problem with Assisi they need to shoot the responsibility to him not his advisors. You may not be so sure with a newbie Pope who’s had very little experience of the Vatican or its politics, but this clearly is not the case with PB16.

      The cigarette paper analogy may be reasonable, but wars have been fought on less.

    • Schütz says:

      I greatly admire the good Cardinal Burke, John. But I think you do him an injustice if you suggest that Cardinal Burke does not fully affirm the teachings of Nostrae Aetate, the Pope and the Magisterium in regard to interfaith diaologue. A bit more than a cigarette paper’s difference there, I would think. It is probably more accurate to say that “you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Burke when it comes to doctrine and liturgy”.

      As for “internal” unity (ie. Christian unity) being put before “external” harmony (ie. interfaith dialogue) that is true – but neither at the expense of truth.

  7. John Nolan says:

    Having read the arguments posted on this topic I read the whole text of B XVI’s Regensburg address of Sept 2006 and am inclined to change my mind. Dialogue with other faiths and western secularists is essential if we want to get the message across.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, John, there is an “overall” strategy in this department. In fact, I think that BXVI has a clearer strategy in this than JPII did. JPII’s strategic battle was in the theology of the body against the culture of death. BXVI’s battle with culture is via the Faith and Reason dialogue. Witness the recent “court of the Gentiles” event.

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