From Assisi 1986 to Assisi 2011, the Meaning of a Journey

Author: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, SDB

From Assisi 1986 to Assisi 2011, the Meaning of a Journey

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, SDB*

On the way to the meeting next 27 October [2011]

On 25 January 1986, in his Homily at the Mass he celebrated in the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls, John Paul II launched an appeal in the context of the International Year for Peace declared by the United Nations Organization. It was not only addressed to Catholics or believers in Christ but also to the members of the world's various religions and to all people of good will so that they might all pray insistently for the gift of peace.

"The Holy See wishes to help bring into existence a global movement of prayer for peace which, by going beyond the boundaries of the individual nations and involving believers of all religions, succeeds in embracing the whole world" (Insegnamenti di Giovanni Paolo II, 1986, Vol. I, p. 198).
On the same occasion, the Pope announced that he wished to sponsor a special meeting that would be held in Assisi, open to the leaders of Churches, of Christian communities and of the world's major religions. The gathering, which took place on 27 October 1986, had a huge impact on worldwide public opinion.

What at first sight caught the attention and imagination of many was to see gathered together — perhaps for the first time in history — so many representatives of the principal religions.

At a closer look it was nevertheless possible to perceive clearly the profound intentions which had motivated the great Pontiff: in the first place, to shed light on the intrinsically spiritual dimension of peace in the face of a cultural climate that was tending to marginalize the religious phenomenon. The components of peace are multiple and its construction undoubtedly requires commitment in the political, social and economic fields, on the part of governments, international organizations and civil societies. Yet it is true that peace is, primarily and fundamentally, a reality that is formed in hearts, born from the loftiest human aspirations.

Secondly, the gathering of the leaders of different religions placed before each one of them the responsibility of ensuring that his or her own religious beliefs express — personally and as a community — an effective endeavour to build peace. Indeed, it is well known that in the past membership of a religion has also often been exploited as an element of opposition and conflict.
The 1986 meeting highlighted the three spiritual elements present, although in different forms, in almost all religious traditions: prayer, pilgrimage and fasting.

John Paul II explained clearly the implications of coming together to pray in the same town: "The fact that we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions. Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all. Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs" (Opening Address for the World Day of Prayer for Peace, Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Assisi, 27 October 1986; L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 3 November 1986, p. 1).

This very point was of capital importance. In fact relativism or syncretism end by destroying, rather than enhancing, the specific quality of religious experience. He subsequently returned to this topic on several occasions partly because of the superficial interpretations — which were not lacking — of that first meeting in Assisi. In the Letter he addressed to the Bishop of Assisi for the loth anniversary of the event, Pope Benedict XVI was to recall that "it is only right to avoid an inappropriate confusion. Therefore, even when we are gathered together to pray for peace, the prayer must follow the different uses proper to the various religions. This was the decision in 1986 and it continues to be valid also today. The convergence of differences must not convey an impression of surrendering to that relativism which denies the meaning of truth itself and the possibility of attaining it" (Message to Bishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Interreligious Meeting of Prayer for Peace, 2 September 2006; ORE, 13 September 2006, p. 3).

This is the correct interpretation of the "spirit of Assisi", frequently invoked in the context of projects for dialogue and meetings between members of different religious traditions. Such initiatives increased after the 1986 meeting, which, for its part, lives on as an event that is in a certain way unique: it was a strong moment of spiritual sharing, lived in simplicity and brotherhood, typical qualities of St Francis whose influence can still be felt in his birthplace.

Thus it comes spontaneously to look anew to Assisi at the particularly delicate and dramatic moment in recent history in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

At the beginning of the new millennium, perhaps at the very moment when the division of the world into opposing blocs had ended and the expectation of the affirmation of an era of greater peace was at its strongest, threatening clouds suddenly appeared, obscuring the hopes of many.

John Paul II then made a second appointment in the town of St Francis with the leaders of Christian communities and of the world religions. It was not only to highlight the condemnation — by all religious people — of terrorism with a fundamentalist stamp, but also to witness that religions as such are committed to fostering an atmosphere of peace, justice and brotherhood in the world, and have no desire to be exploited by clashes between nations, peoples or cultures.

"In particular we wish to bring Christians and Muslims together to proclaim to the world that religion must never be a reason for conflict, hatred and violence" (Reflection prior to the Angelus, 18 November 2001; ORE, 21 November 2001, p. 1). The Pope asked people to prepare for that meeting with a day of fasting. This was meaningfully set at a time near the end of the month of Ramadan.

The Day of Prayer for Peace in the World was held in Assisi on 24 January 2002. On that occasion, as distinct from the public prayer of the different religions that characterized the meeting in 1986, there was a desire to emphasize the solemn commitment to peace. Each religious group had the opportunity to pray in suitable environments in the Franciscan convent, whereas the Christians gathered in the Lower Basilica. These decisions stemmed from the common wish not to offer a pretext for irenic interpretations of the meeting of members of different religions.

At the common gathering in Piazza San Francesco they listened to testimonies favouring peace and, in the afternoon, a solemn commitment wasproclaimed, shared by everyone present. Still today the text retains its full validity: it condemned violence and terrorism that are contrary to an authentic religious spirit; and expressed the desire to teach reciprocal esteem and respect and to promote the culture of dialogue between individuals and peoples, to live the encounter with the differences of others as an opportunity for better reciprocal understanding. It affirmed the desire for forgiveness, the commitment to overcome the errors and prejudices of the past; and it adopted the cause of the poorest and most neglected. The text ended with an appeal to the leaders of nations to spare no efforts in consolidating a world of solidarity and peace based on justice.

The condemnation of violence and terrorism perpetrated in the name of religion introduced into the interreligious meeting an element that may not have been new but was experienced at the time with special intensity: the need for purification, which every religious tradition must assume as it faces other religious traditions and indeed the world. Even the practice of religion is exposed to the consequences of evil, of sin, and can be distorted. Gathering together also means being willing to forgive one another and to purify one's own way of living the religious dimension. The exchange of the embrace of peace among those present with which the Day in 2002 concluded was an eloquent expression of this willingness.

Twenty-five years have now passed since the first historic meeting in Assisi. The world has undergone profound transformations. Why return to the town of the "Poverello"?

The answer is simple: the world changes but the aspirations of the human heart endure and, today especially, the religious dimension is proving to be an indispensable element for the defence and promotion of peace.

Pope Benedict XVI has made a new appointment with the leaders of the Churches, of Christian communities and of the world's major religions, first of all in order to commemorate the event of 1986. It truly opened a new era in relations between people of different religions; it enabled them all to realize that an exchange with others is a necessity that no religious person can ignore.

Yet, of course, they will not only gather in order to remember the past but also to look ahead. What are the challenges that believers today can expect with regard to building peace? What contribution can each individual and each religious tradition offer, where they work, to the cause of justice? And, on the contrary, what incentive can be received in the effort to work to build a world with greater justice and solidarity by those who have a different belief than one's own and also by those who express no religious faith but feel committed to this noble cause?

The theme that the Pontiff has suggested for the celebration of the Day — "Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace" — clearly shows what the meeting on 27 October 2011 will mean.

Let us first recognize that we are all integrated into that common journey which is human history. Declaring we are pilgrims means admitting that we have not yet reached the destination or, better, that it al ways transcends us, constituting the meaning of our journey. Every person of good will feels he is a pilgrim of truth": he feels he is on the way, because he is aware that truth always exceeds him.

This is why it was decided to give a special quality to the next meeting by inviting to Assisi some well-known figures of the worlds of science and culture, who do not profess to be religious. And this is not only because building peace is a responsibility of all, believers and non-believers alike. At a deeper level, we are convinced that the position of those who do not believe or find it difficult to believe can play a salutary role for religion as such, for example, by helping to identify possible forms of degeneration or the lack of authenticity. Traces of this "enlightenment" rightly understood are present in the biblical tradition itself, which is strongly critical of forms of worship that do not bring people close to God but rather alienate them.

As Christians, we profess that in Christ we have received the full and definitive revelation of the Face of God; we know that this gift of salvation is for everyone and we ardently long for the Father's plan of love to be manifest and brought about in its wholeness. We know well, however, that we shall never be able to plumb the depths of the mystery of Christ. And that is not all. We recognize that our frailty can at times dull the splendour of the treasure that has been revealed to us and make it more difficult to know. Having received the truth as a gift does not, therefore, prevent us from feeling that we are the travelling companions of every man and woman.

The Day of Assisi will take place under the banner of those elements which already characterized the first meeting 25 years ago: prayer, fasting and pilgrimage.

Prayer will be experienced, above all in the dimension of silence and inner recollection to which it has been desired to give priority over the public forms of prayer of each tradition, in continuity with what already happened at the meeting in 2002. The concern to avoid even giving an impression of any form of relativism is not solely Catholic and is particularly understandable in today's cultural context, many aspects of which are refractory to the question of truth and for this reason inclined to an undifferentiated and ultimately irrelevant presentation of the religious phenomenon. This does not diminish the profound conviction that prayer remains the essential contribution that religious people can make to the cause of peace. Pope Benedict XVI will preside at a Prayer Vigil for Peace on the previous evening with the faithful of the Diocese of Rome, inviting the bishops and faithful of the whole world to join him.

The second element of the Day is fasting, which will be only partially interrupted by a modest meal, to express brotherhood among those present. The fast will signify the penitential dimension that the meeting also wishes to assume, the conviction of always being disposed to a process of purification.

The last element is pilgrimage. It will be symbolized by the train journey of the delegations from Rome to Assisi, and by the climb in the afternoon, by all the participants, from the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli to the now historic square where the previous meetings concluded. We shall walk together along the streets of Assisi, just as we walk together every day on the highways of this world, on the highways of history. We will recognize each other as pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace, committing ourselves to be builders of a world that is more justand supportive, aware that this task is beyond our own feeble strength and needs to be invoked from on High. These are the sentiments with which we are preparing to accept Pope Benedict xvi's invitation to return to Assisi.

*Cardinal, Secretary of State

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 July 2011, page 6

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
880 Park Avenue
P.O. Box 777
Baltimore, MD 21203
Phone: (443) 263-0248
Fax: (443) 524-3155