|Pope John Paul with Religious Leaders at Assisi|
Prayer for Peace
In my last post I wrote about the ambiguous nature of the Papacy of Pope John Paul II. It was a papacy that hugely successful and hugely disastrous. I want to explore that dichotomy further in this posting.
One of the most remarkable events of the papacy of John Paul II was his gathering of religious leaders in Assisi on October 26, 1986 to pray for peace. Over 160 religious leaders including Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, the Dalai Lama, and Native American John Pretty on Top met together to pray. Shinto priests, Lutheran bishops, Buddhist monks, rabbis, mullahs, and Mennonites—representatives of over 45 religious groups—Christian denominations and non-Christian religions from around the world—gathered first to pray in their particular groups and then came together in the beautiful Church of the Portiuncula to pray for peace among the human family.
Thanks to a remarkable group called the Communità di Sant’Egidio (Community of Saint Egidio) based in Rome, this gathering has been commemorated annually by their organizing other such prayer assemblies in various cities around the world. Many of us who have lived in Rome see the Community of Saint Egidio as the first and most precious fruit of the Second Vatican Council. Started by a group of then secondary school students in 1968, what was a small faith-sharing group has grown into an international community that was once nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t want to go too far down the road of the Saint Egidio Community in this posting—we can look at it another time—but the Community was very helpful to John Paul in his Papal Ministry and in his work as Bishop of Rome. John Paul depended on them to organize a second Assisi Peace Prayer on January 24, 2002.
Not everyone was happy with the Interfaith Assembly. Many neo-traditional Catholics saw this as religious syncretism and were appalled that the Pope would meet on equal footing with Protestants much less with non-Christian religious leaders. They were even more offended that Catholic sanctuaries were permitted to be used for non-Christian worship. Even Cardinal Ratzinger had his reservations and threatened not to attend the 2002 prayer unless some changes were made to the program. In the end there were few concrete effects from the Assisi Prayer, at least as far as the papacy is concerned. The Saint Egidio community has developed the ties to be able to be an unofficial network for cooperation and collaboration among the various religious groups and to serve as a channel of communication, but the ecumenical and inter-faith advances of John Paul’s reign have not only faded but were for the greater part undone in the papacy of his successor. Pope Benedict did attend a gathering of religious leaders in Assisi on October 27, 2011 but there was suggestion of common prayer. It will be interesting to see what Pope Francis chooses to do in pursuing an ecumenical and interfaith agenda during his Petrine Ministry.