Plaque commemorating the 1986
Assisi Gathering At the Basilica
of the Portiuncula in Assisi
One of the best known episodes involving John Paul and an alleged trespassing of religious boundaries was that on February 2, 1986 during a visit to Delhi, the Pope was greeted with a traditional Indian rite of greeting and a tilak, a dot of paste, was put on his forehead in welcome. Detractors claim that the woman administrating the rite was a Hindu “priestess” and that the ceremony invoked various Hindu deities to bless the Pope. Local Catholic authorities claim that the woman was a Catholic Sister and the rite was purely cultural and not religious. I frankly don’t know the facts, but certainly if the rite were a Hindu ceremony it would be a potent violation of Catholic doctrine and discipline for any Catholic to participate in non-Christian worship at this level. On the other hand, the tilak has no specific religious significance—it can be given in various forms and designs and it can be a sign of many diverse devotions or discipleship paths—and it also can be merely a cultural tradition. Whatever the rite and its meaning, however, it caused considerable consternation outside India and especially among evangelicals and Catholic “traditionalists.”
On October 27, 1986 John Paul hosted a Day of Prayer for Peace that was a convocation of 160 religious leaders representing 43 different religious traditions—32 Christian denominations and 11 other religious traditions including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Shinto, Native Americans, and African ancestral religions. The celebration was organized by the Community of Saint Egidio, a Roman Catholic fellowship that does remarkable work among the world’s poor and in efforts of peace, and it was held in Assisi. Organizers arranged for various churches in Assisi to be given over to the diverse religious groups to be used for prayer services in their specific traditions before all came together for a interfaith “celebration” that was not a worship service but which did include prayers for peace in the different religious traditions. Catholic “traditionalists” were appalled that Catholic worship sites were permitted to be used for non-Christian worship and the various sedevacantist factions claimed that this was one more example of why the person sitting in the Vatican was not actually a “true pope.” Cardinal Ratzinger knew better, of course, but he was determined that this sort of things should not be repeated as it gave the impression of religious indifferentism—that is that all religions are of equal value and “truth” in their approaches to the Divine. He initially refused to attend a second gathering organized for Assisi 25 years later; however when plans were made to give the various non-Christian religions gathering rooms in the Sacro Convento for their prayers rather than Catholic worship sites, he relented as was present. He was present under pressure from Pope John Paul, however, and he was still not pleased with the overall arrangements. Nevertheless when a third gathering was held in 2011 Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, attended a much modified gathering—a “conference” at which there was no interfaith worship. All in all, it must be said that Benedict has had much lower (some would say more realistic) expectations when it comes to ecumenism and interfaith relations and that the Catholic Church is at the lowest point in its relationship with both other Christian denominations and other world religions since John XXIII’s momentous announcement of changed policies regarding ecumenism and interreligious dialogue on January 25, 1959 when he convoked the Second Vatican Council. Is this one more step of turning back Vatican II or is it simply a more realistic policy that acknowledges the immense difficulties in healing the breaches within Christianity, much less in building bridges of understanding among the religious traditions in the human family? In either case, Benedict has made happy neither the progressives who want to move forward on religious dialogue nor the “traditionalists” who want to retreat into the pre-conciliar ghetto and wall up the world outside. Granted the Holy Father can’t please everyone but this is one more indication of a lackluster papacy.
Special Greetings to Kevin and Rolf
Special Greetings to Kevin and Rolf