Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Evolution of the Assisi Gathering: To Humanism and Beyond?

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

The Evolution of the Assisi Gathering: To Humanism and Beyond?

Article excerpt

When Pope John Paul II invited world religious leaders to Assisi in 1986, a gathering to pray for peace became a fount for theological controversy. Concerns about syncretism led to refinements of subsequent gatherings in 1993, 1999, 2002, 2006, and an event in October, 2011, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original summit. The new twist in the most recent gathering involved the inclusion of secular humanists, at Pope Benedict XVI's request, in what had previously been a more narrowly religious event. This essay will briefly examine three things: first, the evolution of the external format of the Assisi Gathering, (1) the contexts that led to those changes, and the attitude toward interreligious prayer implied in them; second, the thought of Benedict XVI regarding interreligious prayer and interreligious dialogue and the reasons why the 2011 gathering took the form it did; and third, the nature and effect of the humanists' participation, which focused on Julia Kristeva.

I. The Evolution of the Assisi Gathering

The most iconic images of the Assisi Gathering hail from the first event, a "World Day of Prayer for Peace," convened by John Paul II in 1986. The United Nations had declared 1986 the International Year of Peace, so the pope invited religious leaders to come to Assisi and invoke from God "the gift of peace," a phrase he subsequently used many times. The announcement caught many by surprise, for everyone in ecumenical or interreligious circles knew that this event would break new ground. (2) John Paul insisted that Christians interpret this Assisi initiative as an organic unfolding of the Second Vatican Council's commitment to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the same context in which he understood his own interreligious outreach--most prominently his visit to Rome's Great Synagogue in that same year. After some initial skittishness, leaders from twenty-six different religions attended, including some very prominent figures such as the Dalai Lama.

The potential theological ramifications of such a gathering were obvious. John Paul himself insisted that participants certainly could not "pray together," but they could make a "common prayer," meaning that they would be present while others prayed. This would be a sincere attitude of prayer in an atmosphere of mutual respect. (3) This provided a minor gloss on his address to Moroccan Muslim youth the previous year, a speech that concluded with a long prayer. (4) Cardinal Francis Arinze and Bishop Jorge Mejia, among others, published articles in the weeks leading up to the Assisi Gathering to frame the event in its appropriate theological context. Mejia argued that, in the proper sense, Christians cannot "pray together" with nonChristians because all Christian prayer has a trinitarian character. By comparison with adherents of other traditions, Christians share the deepest spiritual commonality with Jews, but even an attempt for Christians and Jews to pray together would involve either offending the Jew or intentionally obscuring the Christians' trinitarian understanding of their common prayer. What Christians and Jews share in faith "would seem to advise a very limited form of common prayer ... [but] a much greater divergence should advise against it." (5)

In a broader interreligious context, Mejia suggested that Christians could share with other monotheists "a common act of acknowledgement" of the oneness of God, even though the expression of such an act might be limited to the common silence of inner adoration. He wrote that "to go further does not seem possible." To be sure, such common silence has real value. Mejia recognized semina verbi in the purest forms of prayer, contemplation, and sacred rites of the world's great religious traditions. From an attentive, respectful, and humble openness, however,

"it does not follow that we have to pray together." Rather, he argued,

   the opposite seems to follow. … 
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