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Andreas R. Batlogg SJ {*}

Assisi 1986/2011

The Prayer Meeting for World Peace
as a Legacy of Vatican II


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 10/2011, P. 710-713
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


On 27 October 2011, there will take place in Assisi an interreligious peace meeting to which Pope Benedict XVI has invited - on the very day 25 years after the first meeting of this kind. It has its origin in the initiative of his predecessor John Paul II, an initiative which was and is controversial and passionately discussed within the church. In a small article in "Le Monde" (10th October 1997) the French historian Jean Delumeau said that the meeting of religions was "one of the most important acts of Pope John Paul II and the symbol of a decisive change (tournant décisif)" {1} in history: at the same level as the church's reconsideration of her Jewish roots since Pius XI, the rehabilitation of Galileo or the differentiated attitude towards the theory of evolution. Max Seckler, professor of fundamental theology, wrote in an evaluation of this "Synodos of religions" that the pope with regard to Assisi "dared to end an era of religious history and to break new ground" {2}.

Due to the influence of the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war between the superpowers, in the by the United Nations proclaimed "International Year of Peace", John Paul II had invited more than 120 representatives of various religions and churches to a World Day of Prayer in the city of Saint Francis in Umbria, in order to fast together and to pray for peace. The photos which went around the world show him in a row with the Orthodox Archbishop of Thyatira and Great Britain Methodius as the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Dimitrios, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso or Somdet Phra Maha Ghosananda, who became later the Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism in Cambodia {3}. Besides cardinals and bishops from around the world, also a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the Roman Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff took part in the meeting.

The images had their effect - both within and outside the church. While politicians and representatives of other, especially of non-Christian religions carefully noted that the host was serious with the texts and the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, there was a flood of fierce polemics ("world prayer happening") and gross disqualifications mainly from the traditionalist side of the Roman Catholic Church ("awful abomination", "exorbitant scandal without precedent", "one of the greatest blasphemies of church history", "fraternization of religions inspired by Free Masonry" {4}). They continue up to this day.

Like the pope, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who as President of the Pontifical Commission "Iustitia et Pax" had led the preparations for the World Day of Prayer, found himself repeatedly constrained to draw the attention to the character of this prayer meeting, when several times the charge of "betrayal" and "sell-out" of the basic principles of the Catholic Church was made.



The fact that the pope in Assisi avoided "any semblance of superiority" {5} infuriated those who sensed a "decline" in the Catholic claim to absoluteness - as the future president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Michael L. Fitzgerald noted.

Two months later, in his Christmas address to the Roman Curia, the Pope who knew about the resistance of several Curial Cardinals was responsive to conjectures and suspicions. The long speech is full of references to texts of Vatican II, particularly to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church "Lumen Gentium", the Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes" and the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions "Nostra aetate". There it says, "The meeting of Assisi showed the Catholic Church as she gave the Christian brothers her hand and they all together in turn took the hands of the brothers of other religions. It was like a visible expression of these statements of the Second Vatican Council. At this day and through it we have by the grace of God succeeded in putting this our conviction into practice - without any shadow of confusion and syncretism. This belief in the unity of origin and destination of the human family and the meaning and value of non-Christian religions has shaped the Second Vatican Council." {6}

In his address to the Diplomatic Corps on 10 January 1987 in Rome one reads, "Moreover, among the representatives of major religions it was not about debating religious beliefs in order to achieve a syncretic religious conformity. Rather, the intention was that we simultaneously and selflessly devote ourselves to the basic cause of peace among people and nations, or rather we all together turn to God, in order to ask him for this gift. ... The event of Assisi has shown that peace and religion belong together." {7}

Those who reject "Assisi" - the historical event of 1986 as well as the in this spirit continued peace meetings in the following 23 years, including the meeting fixed now for 27 October 2011 -, reject ultimately the Vatican II. It was no accident that John Paul II announced Assisi right there (San Paolo Fuori le Mura) and on the same day, namely at the end of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 25) where 27 years ago John XXIII announced a new council.

In view of sensitivities which had grown over centuries, the pope emphasized already in the run-up to Assisi 1986 that they would not pray together but "be together" in order to pray {8}: i.e. to be present when others are praying.

As it is well known, "Assisi" has formed a precedent. It remained no nine-day wonder, as some people had hoped, after they could no longer prevent the meeting. Since 1987 the Community of Sant'Egidio has been organizing the prayer for peace of the religions in the form of annual peace meetings - without having been asked explicitly to do so. It took up the suggestion of the Pope, "Let us continue living the spirit of Assisi." {9} Past stations were Rome (twice), Warsaw, Bari, Malta, Brussels, Milan (twice), Assisi (twice), Florence, Padua-Venice, Bucharest, Genoa, Lisbon, Barcelona, Palermo, Lyon, Washington, Naples, Cyprus, Krakow and Barcelona; Germany was twice the scene of the meeting: 2003 in Aachen and now, in September, in Munich.



The "Secretariat for non-Christians", which was established by Paul VI in 1964 and in 1988 renamed "Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue", is one of the immediate reform results of Vatican II. In March 2006 this council was abolished as an independent institution and was incorporated into the "Pontifical Council for Culture", which is headed by Cardinal Paul Poupard. This decision was a signal but also an embarrassing mishap: it revealed little diplomatic finesse and aroused fears of a course correction by the new pope. The then president, Archbishop Michael L. Fitzgerald, a member of the missionary society "White Fathers" and a well-known Arabist had been its secretary for ten years and became in 2002 as President of the Council the successor of the black African Cardinal Francis Arinze. In February 2006 Fitzgerald was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Egypt, or rather one "got rid of him by singing his praise." One must give Benedict XVI great credit for revising his decision: At the end of May 2007 he announced through the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone that the Council would again be established as an independent Dicastery. Just to remind you: In between, there was in September 2006 the pope's "Regensburger Speech" with the unfortunate quotation.

As Curial Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had reservations about Assisi. This was confirmed in 2003 by the then 98-years-old Vienna Cardinal Franz König in an interview with Jacques Dupuis SJ, which was later published in German in the journal "Stimmen der Zeit" {10}. In 2002, however, Ratzinger took part in the World Day of Prayer, then again in Assisi. In 2006, now elected as Pope, he sent a remarkable message to the bishop of Assisi-Nocera, Domenico Sorrentino - on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer. In it he says that the event of Assisi, which took place under very different geopolitical conditions, obtained today the character of a prophecy which has become true" (il carattere di una puntual profezia) {11}. To the surprise of some people and to the annoyance of others, he then announced on 1 January 2011 that he will travel to Assisi in October, in order to remind of the peace prayer 25 years ago.

The Society of Saint Pius X responded at once. On the U.S. website, its leader Bishop Bernard Fellay immediately emphasized that his community prayed to God that the meeting should not happen. It will nevertheless take place, because it does not need the blessing or permission of a restorative group, which wants to annul or to whittle away many positions of Vatican II. Benedict XVI is probably aware of the fact that this is not possible. It remains a mystery why he has embarked on negotiations with a splinter group that thinks the interreligious dialogue, too, is a work of the devil.

According to a KNA-report, the Cardinal Secretary of State has - in view of the Society of Saint Pius X - emphasized that in Assisi any semblance of mixing religions would be avoided. On the other hand, he pointed out that the pope wanted to send a strong signal of the religions for peace, and thus make the religions discharge their duty {12}

Assisi 2011 is not just a nostalgic look back at 25 years of serious dialogue among religions {13}; since 1986 it brings together also political opinion leaders. It is the commitment to a church that respects other religions - in word and deed. Any different kind of attitude is a betrayal of Vatican II.



{1} Quoted from: H. R. Schlette, Kirchliche Eingeständnisse, in: Orien 62 (1998) 1-2, 1.

{2} M. Seckler, Synodos der Religionen. Das 'Ereignis von Assisi' u. seine Perspektive für eine Theologie der Religionen, in: ThQ 169 (1989) 5-24, 7.

{3} See e.g. the picture in: ĄDer Dialog muß weitergehen". Ausgewählte vatikanische Dokumente zum interreligiösen Dialog (1964-2008), edited and introduced by E. Fürlinger (Freiburg 2009) 114.



{4} This florilegium is documented by Seckler (note 2) 5.

{5} M. L. Fitzgerald, Mission and Dialogue: Reflections in the Light of Assisi 1986; quoted from ĄDer Dialog muß weitergehen" (note 3) 117.

{6} Quoted from the same place 141-147, 145.

{7} Quoted from the same place 148-153, 149.

{8} So in the address on the occasion of the general audience of 22. 10. 1986; Quoted from the same place 118.

{9} Farewell speech of 29. 10. 1986 in Rom to the participants of various religions in the peace prayer of Assisi 1986; Quoted from the same place 118.

{10} F. König and J. Dupuis, Unterwegs zu einem Dialog der Religionen, in this journal 226 (2008) 232-244, 237: ĄCardinal Ratzinger disapproved of it."

{11} AAS 98 (2006) 749-754, 750.

{12} See KNA-Informationsdienst No. 27, 6.7. 2011, 6. 13

{13} From the now extensive literature we would like to draw your attention at least to these publications: Die Friedensgebete von Assisi. Einleitung v. F. König, Kommentar v. H. Waldenfels (Freiburg 1987); H. Waldenfels, Assisi 1986, in: ThQ 169 (1989) 24-33; G. Riedl, Modell Assisi. Christliches Gebet u. interreligiöser Dialog in heilsgeschichtlichem Kontext (Berlin 1998); F. Teixeira, ĄDas Paradigma von Assisi", in: Conc(D) 37 (2001) 348-358; A. Riccardi, Der Präventivfriede. Hoffnungen u. Gedanken in einer unruhigen Welt (Würzburg 2005) 183-206 (chapter 11: ĄDer Geist von Assisi").


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