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I was privileged to spend yesterday, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, in Assisi with Pope Francis. With him came the Council of Cardinals, or group of eight, which held their first meeting this week. It was an overcast, pleasant day, the predicted thunderstorms holding off until last night.
The last papal event I attended in Assisi was the 25th anniversary of the first interreligious day of prayer for peace with Pope Benedict XVI, which was dubbed ”Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.” Two cornerstone pieces of the original event were missing however – prayer, and the Sant’Egidio community who organize the annual prayers for peace in the spirit of Assisi. Subsequently, perhaps, attendance was surprisingly low.
Yesterday was a different story. The Eucharistic celebration in the lower piazza of San Francesco was witnessed not only by a full piazza there, but also in the upper piazza, all the side streets, and in the other major piazzas of Assisi (Santa Chiara, San Rufino, Piazza del Commune) where jumbotron screens were set up. It was an almost all-Italian gathering, and there is no question of the broad appeal of this reforming pontiff.
It came at the end of an amazing week in terms of Church news – especially with regard to Church reform. I commented already on some of them, but there has been so much, it has been hard to keep up. Thankfully, there are professionals to do that for us: John Allen summarizes this week in Vatican and Church news, in what he contends to be the biggest week outside of a conclave in his nearly 20 years of Vatican reporting.
The biggest news is probably the meeting this week of the Council of Cardinals, dubbed in some circles the G-8. They have discussed the ecclesiology of Vatican II, the reform of the Synod of Bishops into a more permanent exercise of synodality and collegiality, the reform of the Roman curia to such an extent as to require a new constitution emphasizing decentralization and service to the local churches, changes to the Secretariat of State that might remove it from its current role as über-dicastery, and serious questions on the role of the laity in the church, including the role of the laity inside the curia itself. Their second meeting is set for just two months from now. They seem to really be addressing the half-finished business of Vatican II, or at least getting started on it.
When my students asked me last week why no pope or bishop has ever talked about the Church in the way that Francis has, and why there’s never been so much energy in the church, I was reminded of my own experience as a university sophomore, in my own 200-level theology class (on Vatican II) asking a similar question, “why are we still waiting for the changes promised by the Council? How can 35 years have passed and we are still waiting [on things like decentralization, synodality and collegiality, the role of the laity, the full restoration of the diaconate, overcoming clericalism, etc]?” – I had no idea 15 years later I would be the one trying to answer these questions, and under what different circumstances!
Two highlights of John Allen’s highlights, aside from the meeting of the Council of Cardinals, worth particular notice:
Allen reports that
“Von Freyberg told me recently it’s his ambition to put gossipy newspaper reports out of business by making it so easy to get information directly from him that journalists don’t have to rely on whispers in Roman bars.”
If that is not argument enough for getting more lay people in positions of responsibility of the Roman Curia, i do not know what is. When was the last time you heard any cleric tackle communication and transparency issues so directly? Well, before this one…
The second point is less about this week in particular, but about Allen’s comments about his own book on religious persecution around the world, after talking about the killing of about 500 Christians in India during 2008 riots:
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s what a real “war on religion” looks like. One aim of the book is to reframe the conversation over religious freedom among Western Christians so we don’t allow our metaphorical battles at home to obscure the literal, and often lethal, war on Christians being waged in other parts of the world.
In the view from Rome, there was a bit of discomfiture last year with the whole tone and tenor of the ‘fortnight for freedom’ in the U.S., because it seemed to ignore the real problems of religious freedom. Officially, of course, the Vatican backs its bishops, but, unofficially (and remember this was still under Pope Benedict) there seemed to be a current of thought around the Vatican and in Rome that there was a little too much partisan politicking, and not enough focus on the fact that there are more Christian martyrs around the world today than at any point in history. It is hard to be quite so concerned about contraceptive funding when there are Christians dying at the hands of radical elements in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and secular Atheism – especially when it is part of a universal health care plan that the Church supports in principle, if not in every detail.
This is, of course, not to say to ignore the small problems before they become big ones, but to keep everything in perspective. That is something we Americans have a hard enough time doing when it comes to global events, but for which membership in a Church so universally oriented that it is called Catholic ought to be a corrective.
For the full run-down of the week, read Allen’s article here.
In brief, what happened this week:
- Canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II set for April 27
- Discussion of regional tribunals to adjudicate clerical sex abuse cases
- G-8 formal established as a permanent Council of Cardinals
- A “stunning Q&A with the pope” published in La Repubblica
- The Vatican Bank (IOR) released its first-ever annual report and its lay president demonstrates the kind of transparency attitude needed all over the Church
- The Vatican Bank announced the closure of 900 accounts for dubious activity
- The Council of Cardinals began its first meeting, as mentioned above
- Feast of Francis of Assisi . Francis took aim at the ‘right’ by calling on the Church to “strip itself of the cancer of worldliness”, and took aim at the ‘left’ by asserting that the peace of Francis is not a ‘kind of pantheistic harmony with the forces of the cosmos’, but a Christ-centered peace.
Though I usually try to spend the night, a visiting friend and I made a day trip to Assisi. I have been there in all seasons but the height of summer, until now. By now, I have reported on all the major sites, and mentioned before my favorite little church, essentially untouched in its 900 year history, Santo Stefano.
The diocese is currently planning the church’s (purportedly) first-ever renovation, but it was not clear what that would entail. Hopefully, nothing baroque!
As we approached, we saw a small sign inviting us into the adjacent monastery garden for rest and refreshment. On entering we found a small group of pilgrims from northern Germany who were in town with a total of about 20 from their parish, including the pastor, who were spending a few weeks in Assisi offering this simple hospitality ministry in shifts. Shade, water, and greenery with a view was a most welcome respite in the heat of the day (though much cooler than Rome, at 30C/85F it was still hot!).
Apparently this is the second year of these groups coming to live a few weeks in Assisi and offer the ministry to pilgrims and tourists. I wonder if they take Americans?
So, I have had a bit of a break from blogging, mostly to focus on other writing, and owing to other distractions. Rome can do that.
However, I find myself now with about 30 pages of back-notes for blogs, and sitting in Assisi for a conference of the Ecclesiological Investigations Network, so it seemed opportune to begin again with some observations from the first day. The theme is Assisi 2012: Where we Dwell in Common – Pathway sofr Dialogue in the 21st Century. The three thematic tracks are intra/inter ecclesial issues (ecumenism/ecclesiology), interfaith/interreligious issues, and Faith and World/Culture.
We arrived yesterday and started with an opening plenary prayer in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, home of the Porzincula, and greeted by Assisi Archbishop Domenic Sorrentino and Friar Fabrizio Migliasso, Custodian of the basilica.
There are a few familiar faces (Peter Phan, Rick Gillardetz, Dennis Doyle, Michael Kinnamon), and a few names I finally get to put faces to (Paul Murray from Durham, the other Viggo Mortensen). But I confess I am a little surprised how few I knew or knew of – one more reminder of how insulated pontifical academia can get.
Participants number over 200, from 55 countries, and several different churches and faiths. The opening panel offered insights into the theological situation in Italy for the participants, and the opening keynote was offered by Paul Arthur of North Ireland, offering lessons from the peace process there for dialogue initiatives. Peter Phan offered a humorous evening toast, and Dennis Doyle delivered a deadpan response. This morning began with a plenary panel composed of Brad Hinze (US), Mary Getui (Kenya), and Eleni Kasselour Hatzivassiliadi (Greece) and a response from Deivit Montealegre (Argentina).
The late morning, we had parallel plenaries, with mine focused on interchurch issues, such as:
- The Burdens of History: Must Tribalism Always Prevail?
- Hierarchy or Network of Truths? Hermenutical Principles and Challenges of Dialogue about Doctrinal Issues
- Does a Doctrinal Teaching Office have an Ecumenical Future? (Which focused on a recent report of the Group des Dombes)
The afternoon held smaller breakout sessions with panels of smaller papers, and more direct discussion. I chose one with a Chilean and Tanzanian students from Louven, and Michael Walsh, the British church historian. He offered a look into an as-yet unpublished encyclical of Pius XI, Ecclesia Christi – On the True Church of Christ. It is one of two released in the archives of his pontificate.
It is so healthy, and people are so approachable. It is like a retreat, except that daily life in Rome is like a retreat, so I guess having a packed schedule is the retreat from the retreat. Having the daily intellectual stimulation with world class scholars is a nice break though. It is such a culture clash from the daily pontifical experience though, nobody is here speaking in official capacity, and everyone is quite open. No holds barred in critiquing the narrowing hermeneutic of the Council, calling to task shoddy scholarship, or directly challenging other churches for inconsistencies or unusual doctrinal stances.
I present on Friday, offering some observations on non-priestly ministries as opportunities for ecumenical convergence. Diaconate and lay ecclesial ministry anyone?
I wrote the following for Koinonia, the newsletter of the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. It was published in the winter 2012 issue:
For Avner, an Israeli Jew, Yom Kippur this year meant spending the day at a Benedictine retreat center with his new housemates and attending his first Catholic mass. It inspired him to fast for the Day of Atonement for the first time in years.
For Kassim, a Muslim father of three from Ghana, his first Sunday in Rome was marked by the celebration of the Eucharist as well – at St. Peter’s Basilica with Pope Benedict XVI and all the bishops of Africa, including Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Matthew, a Christian born in Singapore and living in Australia, experienced for the first time a Shabbat meal with a rabbi; Muhamed, a Sunni imam from Bosnia studied the liturgy of the hours in the Latin tradition alongside a Belarusian Orthodox scripture scholar and a Syro-Malabar Catholic liturgist.
When a rabbi, an imam, and a minister sit down together, it sounds like the beginning of a joke. Mention that they are housemates, too, and you suspect there is a punch line coming. Add that this is in the heart of Rome, in a Catholic residence for students of the Pontifical Universities in the Eternal City, and your skepticism is almost justified.
For twenty-five years, however, the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas has been just that: a Catholic collegio committed to the formation of future theologians and church leaders in their Catholic identity – and precisely by virtue of that commitment, also a house of hospitality to ecumenical and interreligious scholars in Rome.
The Lay Centre was founded by Dr. Donna Orsuto, of Ohio, and Ms. Riekie van Velzen, of the Netherlands, in 1986 – a time when, surprisingly, there were still very few lay students in the pontifical universities, and when no Roman collegio was open to people who were not priests, seminarians, or religious. It was born out of the Foyer Unitas (literally, Hearth of Unity) of the Ladies of Bethany, which they had operated since 1952 as an information and hospitality center for non-Catholic pilgrims to Rome, including some of the ecumenical observers at Vatican II.
During the recent twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations, the co-founders, Dr. Orsuto and Ms. van Velzen were honored by Pope Benedict XVI as Dame of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and Dame of the Order of Pope St. Sylvester, respectively.
The Lay Centre’s mission is threefold:
- To provide a formation program for the resident student community based on the four pillars of Christian formation identified by the Holy See: spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral.
- To provide ongoing adult faith formation to the expatriate Anglophone communities of Rome.
- To provide a series of international programs giving church leaders from around the world a unique opportunity to explore the history and theology of Rome.
There are currently twenty-two residents of sixteen nationalities and from five continents. They are agnostic and Jewish, Shi’a and Sunni, Orthodox and Catholic (even Latin and Eastern!). In such a milieu, there is ample opportunity for a dialogue of life and hands-on learning from a cross-cultural context.
Food and mealtimes always provide such occasions: One student is vegetarian, the three Muslims have three different approaches to halal, and during advent the Orthodox have gone temporarily vegan. As an Italian dinner is never complete without wine on the table, the Sicilian blood-orange juice was redubbed “Muslim red wine” by those not permitted to partake of the Christian variety. Dinnertime conversation can range from the World Cup to circumcision practices in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A trip to the kitchen for a midnight snack can turn into a two-hour conversation about different religions’ perspectives on agnosticism and secularity.
The Prayer Life of the House
As a lay Catholic Christian community, the prayer life of the house is decidedly in that tradition; members of other churches are welcome to participate, and members of other faiths are welcome to observe, as appropriate. Before the main community meal of the day, all who choose to do so pray either midday prayer or vespers in common, and every day ends with a form of night prayer. A weekly community night includes the celebration of the Eucharist with a guest bishop or priest, dinner, and a formation session. Meal prayers might come from any tradition and be in any language.
Prayer also presents the opportunities for respectful presence and observation at the prayer of another religion, like the Jewish and Muslim encounters with the Mass mentioned above. Prayer can be a time for hospitality: During a recent evening event, one of the Muslim guests asked his Lay Centre hosts for a quiet place to pray maghrib. One Catholic resident immediately went to his room to retrieve a prayer mat he kept for just such occasions, as the other resident volunteered to wait during her friends’ prayer to make sure he was not disturbed.
In October, the Lay Centre organized  a pilgrimage to Assisi to join Pope Benedict XVI and other leaders of the world’s religions for the Pilgrimage of Peace, Pilgrimage of Truth,marking the 25th anniversary of the historic first interreligious gathering in Assisi with Pope John Paul II. Though the official agenda included several speeches and declarations of commitment to peace, no form of common prayer was scheduled.
Prayer, pilgrimage, and community are separated only with difficulty, however. As the group wandered around the ancient town for half an hour before dinner, some found their way to San Stefano, a simple 12th century church. Instinctively, Christians made their way to the front benches to quietly pray, while in the vestibule, an imam and a dervish began their own prayers. Our agnostic housemate took time to reflect outside with a cigarette.
Like the medieval church in which we found ourselves – simple, quiet, and peaceful – the prayer and reflection expressed our unity and our diversity. It is precisely this community without communion which marks life in the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas and makes it an oasis of hospitality and dialogue in the heart of Rome.
A.J. Boyd is a graduate student in ecumenism at Rome’s Angelicum University, and graduate assistant at the Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue. Before returning to studies full-time, he was a lay ecclesial minister for the Archdiocese of Seattle and active in ecumenical and interreligious work in the United States. This is his third year at the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas.
1 In the Pontifical Roman system, Universities are the accredited institutions of post-secondary education. Colleges, which are generally seminaries, are the residences and houses of formation where most university students are presumed to live and receive the balance of their formation. 2 In collaboration with the Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue (Rome)
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Distinguished Heads and Representatives of Churches, Ecclesial Communities and World Religions,
Twenty-five years have passed since Blessed Pope John Paul II first invited representatives of the world’s religions to Assisi to pray for peace. What has happened in the meantime? What is the state of play with regard to peace today? At that time the great threat to world peace came from the division of the earth into two mutually opposed blocs. A conspicuous symbol of this division was the Berlin Wall which traced the border between two worlds right through the heart of the city. In 1989, three years after Assisi, the wall came down, without bloodshed. Suddenly the vast arsenals that stood behind the wall were no longer significant. They had lost their terror. The peoples’ will to freedom was stronger than the arsenals of violence. The question as to the causes of this dramatic change is complex and cannot be answered with simple formulae. But in addition to economic and political factors, the deepest reason for the event is a spiritual one: behind material might there were no longer any spiritual convictions. The will to freedom was ultimately stronger than the fear of violence, which now lacked any spiritual veneer. For this victory of freedom, which was also, above all, a victory of peace, we give thanks. What is more, this was not merely, nor even primarily, about the freedom to believe, although it did include this. To that extent we may in some way link all this to our prayer for peace.
But what happened next? Unfortunately, we cannot say that freedom and peace have characterized the situation ever since. Even if there is no threat of a great war hanging over us at present, nevertheless the world is unfortunately full of discord. It is not only that sporadic wars are continually being fought – violence as such is potentially ever present and it is a characteristic feature of our world. Freedom is a great good. But the world of freedom has proved to be largely directionless, and not a few have misinterpreted freedom as somehow including freedom for violence. Discord has taken on new and frightening guises, and the struggle for freedom must engage us all in a new way.
Let us try to identify the new faces of violence and discord more closely. It seems to me that, in broad strokes, we may distinguish two types of the new forms of violence, which are the very antithesis of each other in terms of their motivation and manifest a number of differences in detail. Firstly there is terrorism, for which in place of a great war there are targeted attacks intended to strike the opponent destructively at key points, with no regard for the lives of innocent human beings, who are cruelly killed or wounded in the process. In the eyes of the perpetrators, the overriding goal of damage to the enemy justifies any form of cruelty. Everything that had been commonly recognized and sanctioned in international law as the limit of violence is overruled. We know that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty that considers itself entitled to discard the rules of morality for the sake of the intended “good”. In this case, religion does not serve peace, but is used as justification for violence.
The post-Enlightenment critique of religion has repeatedly maintained that religion is a cause of violence and in this way it has fuelled hostility towards religions. The fact that, in the case we are considering here, religion really does motivate violence should be profoundly disturbing to us as religious persons. In a way that is more subtle but no less cruel, we also see religion as the cause of violence when force is used by the defenders of one religion against others. The religious delegates who were assembled in Assisi in 1986 wanted to say, and we now repeat it emphatically and firmly: this is not the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction. In response, an objection is raised: how do you know what the true nature of religion is? Does your assertion not derive from the fact that your religion has become a spent force? Others in their turn will object: is there such a thing as a common nature of religion that finds expression in all religions and is therefore applicable to them all? We must ask ourselves these questions, if we wish to argue realistically and credibly against religiously motivated violence. Herein lies a fundamental task for interreligious dialogue – an exercise which is to receive renewed emphasis through this meeting. As a Christian I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature. The God in whom we Christians believe is the Creator and Father of all, and from him all people are brothers and sisters and form one single family. For us the Cross of Christ is the sign of the God who put “suffering-with” (compassion) and “loving-with” in place of force. His name is “God of love and peace” (2 Cor 13:11). It is the task of all who bear responsibility for the Christian faith to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God’s peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.
If one basic type of violence today is religiously motivated and thus confronts religions with the question as to their true nature and obliges all of us to undergo purification, a second complex type of violence is motivated in precisely the opposite way: as a result of God’s absence, his denial and the loss of humanity which goes hand in hand with it. The enemies of religion – as we said earlier – see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear. But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself, now having only himself to take as a criterion. The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence.
Yet I do not intend to speak further here about state-imposed atheism, but rather about the decline of man, which is accompanied by a change in the spiritual climate that occurs imperceptibly and hence is all the more dangerous. The worship of mammon, possessions and power is proving to be a counter-religion, in which it is no longer man who counts but only personal advantage. The desire for happiness degenerates, for example, into an unbridled, inhuman craving, such as appears in the different forms of drug dependency. There are the powerful who trade in drugs and then the many who are seduced and destroyed by them, physically and spiritually. Force comes to be taken for granted and in parts of the world it threatens to destroy our young people. Because force is taken for granted, peace is destroyed and man destroys himself in this peace vacuum.
The absence of God leads to the decline of man and of humanity. But where is God? Do we know him, and can we show him anew to humanity, in order to build true peace? Let us first briefly summarize our considerations thus far. I said that there is a way of understanding and using religion so that it becomes a source of violence, while the rightly lived relationship of man to God is a force for peace. In this context I referred to the need for dialogue and I spoke of the constant need for purification of lived religion. On the other hand I said that the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.
In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion, a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given, but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God. Such people do not simply assert: “There is no God”. They suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness. They are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”. They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to consider God as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible. Therefore I have consciously invited delegates of this third group to our meeting in Assisi, which does not simply bring together representatives of religious institutions. Rather it is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force. Finally I would like to assure you that the Catholic Church will not let up in her fight against violence, in her commitment for peace in the world. We are animated by the common desire to be “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace”.
© Copyright 2011 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana
The official Christian delegates included Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, Archbishop Norvan Zakaryan of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Secretary General Olav Fyske Tveit of the World Council of Churches.
In all, there were representatives of the Orthodox Churches from the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, and the Ukrainian, Belarusian, Cypriot, Polish and Albanian churches. The Oriental Orthodox were represented by the Syrian Patriarchate of Antioch, the Armenian Apostolic Church (both Catholicossates) and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The Assyrian Church of the East was represented by the Metropolitan of India, the bishop of California and a priest.
The Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church, Lutheran World Federation, World Communion of Reformed Churches, the World Methodist Council, the Baptist World Alliance, World Convention of the Churches of Christ, the Mennonite World Conference, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the World Council of Churches were all represented, along with the Church of Scotland, the Disciples of Christ, the Salvation Army, and the classical Pentecostal churches.
176 representatives of non-Christian religions were present, including Reform and Orthodox Judaism; Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite and Ismaili Muslims; Hinduism (including Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma); Jainism; Zoroastrianism; Buddhism (including Shaolin, Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, Tendai, Jogye, Jodo-Shu, and other forms); Confucianism; Taoism; Shinto; Mandaean (Gnostics); Sikh; Baha’i; traditional African, American, and Indian Religions; and “new religions” such as Tenrikyo, Ennokyo, and Myochi-kai.
Four “non-believers” were invited, a first, emphasizing Pope Benedict’s interest in the New Evanglization and his effort to engage secularism and religion on a level of common interest in the quest for truth. These included Julia Kristeva, Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst; Guillermo Hurtado, the Mexican philosopher; Walter Baier, a politician from Austria; and Remo Bodei an Italian professor of Aesthetic and philosophy.
The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, in collaboration with the new Pope John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, planned a day trip to Assisi on 27 October 2011 to join Pope Benedict XVI and world religious leaders – and a few secular agnostics – in a day of pilgrimage toward peace.
Our group included seven from the Lay Centre, six Russell Berrie Fellows and alumni, and one who could count for both. Additionally, we were joined by Rev. Tom Ryan, CP, of the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs; Anna Maria Kloss, wife of the Austrian Ambassador to the Holy See; and seven other pontifical university students, including two from the Gregoriana’s late Interdisciplinary Center for the study of Religion and Culture.
We were 24 people representing 16 countries, including: Austria, Belarus, Bosnia i Herzegovina, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Rwanda, Turkey, the U.S., and Venezuela.
Our day began at 0500, enough time to get up and ready for an 0600 departure by tourbus, for the 3 hour drive to Assisi. At a coffee break on the way, we ran into the Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See. After arrival in Assisi we met up with our local guide and Lay Centre alumna, Lori King; Dr. Marian Diaz and staff of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See.
The schedule of the day was relatively light. At 1030 the morning session at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, in the valley below Assisi proper, lasted for a little under two hours. We then made our way up the hill to a restaurant near the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare) for lunch. After lunch a leisurely stroll took us to the other end of town, to join a World Youth Day in miniature going on in the lower piazza before the delegates arrived. The closing event started at 1630, and was over in time for us to get a quick pizza and be on the road to Rome by 2000.
Assisi was, if anything, quieter than many of my visits. Expecting large crowds for the event, most who did not have tickets stayed away, so in fact there was just a right amount – those with tickets admitted into the venues, and then only locals from Assisi and nearby towns lining the roadways or in the piazza outside the church. It was a welcome change from the unruly hordes that accompany papal events in Rome. Inside the basilica in the morning, we were seated barely 15 meters from the platform, though at an obscure angle. In the afternoon, the lowere piazza was filled, but it is not very large, and we were seated at just the place where the pope, patriarch, and archbishop disembarked their shuttle.
At one point, just before the delegates arrived for the afternoon program, one of our company had gone looking for water. We wanted to find him before it was too late to re-enter the piazza, but were barred from exiting by security as the delegates who were coming on foot were about to arrive. As we watched the nearly 300 religious delegates enter the piazza, wondering where Muhammad had gone, there he comes in the middle of the delegates procession, engaged in deep conversation with a professor from Sarajevo! It looked so natural, that security did not even think to stop him. It was classic, and again, left me wishing I had had a working camera with me!
In the end, the trip came together wonderfully, especially in that most of it was put together in only a week. It is a once in a decade event, made well worth it with the companionship of friends and colleagues in dialogue.
“Assisi alone is enough reason to beatify Pope John Paul II” was the headline of the Catholic Herald in the UK last April, a fortnight before the late pope was approved for veneration on the calendar of the diocese of Rome and in Poland as one of the “Blessed”. Karol Wojtyła became a pope of many firsts, and John Allen, Jr. has recently quipped that Joseph Ratzinger has become a pope of seconds – but that these second times can be as important as the first.
In part, this is because it gives certain sustainability to an event or program, showing that it was not a personal proclivity of the past pope, doomed to die with him. This has been true of World Youth Day, and now of the Assisi pilgrimage for peace.
Another aspect is this: Pope Wojtyła was an actor, a master of stage and screen. He had the timing and the panache to make big waves with spectacular images and actions. One curial cardinal was asked, at a meeting of his dicastery, “When will we see some of these grand images of [the pope’s] turn into policy?” The cardinal leaned to his secretary and was overheard to say, “Come si dice ‘senza fiato’ in inglese? (How do you say, ‘we are out of breath’ in English?) … We can barely keep up with him!”
The current bishop of Rome is a theologian, a teacher, and an introvert. He takes a few of these grand points, and is digging deeper, giving them ‘staying power’ in the system and with reflection. In the process, he is adding his own spin on things, too. Much ado was made of the fact that this time around, the fourth gathering of interreligious leaders to Assisi for the cause of peace, there would be no ‘common prayer’ so that not even the most rigorous of the right-wing could cry foul (or so it was thought).
Never mind that there was never ‘common prayer’ in the first case, either. Coming together to pray is different than coming to pray together. In 1986, the day concluded with a series of prayers, each religious group leading its own prayer, while other participants looked on in respectful silence. It was close enough that even Ratzinger was reserved about the appropriateness at the time.
(In the annals of the bizarre, and as a reminder of how much of Italian journalism at the time was about inflammatory rhetoric more than fact, one Italian reporter made claims that African animists sacrificed a chicken on the altar of the Basilica of Santa Chiara, inciting charges of sacrilege and syncretism. The fact that the basilica was closed and no such act ever took place does not stop certain elements from bringing it up from time to time to discredit the Spirit of Assisi and Pope John Paul II.)
This year, the day started at the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli with a series of 10 scheduled talks on peace, after an introduction from Cardinal Turkson of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which organized this year’s event. The appeals were offered by four Christians, followed by five non-Christian religious leaders, and one ‘non-believer’. There was a confused moment as the apparent Muslim guest was brought to the lectern, refused the notes he was offered, and went on to explain in Arabic that he was not the person listed on the program, but offered a reflection anyway. Only after the last scheduled speaker was the original Muslim representative produced to deliver his address; I still do not know who the first Muslim presenter was or what else he said.
Before the day, Fr. Tom had asked what language the day would be presented in. Based on my experiences in Rome for major liturgies and events, I indicated Italian, with only smatterings of others. I was wrong. Throughout the day, the three cardinals all spoke in English. In the morning, it was clear that efforts were made to be as universally understood as possible: English was used by the Anglican, WCC, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, African animist religious representatives. French was spoken by the Orthodox and agnostic. The Buddhist representative spoke in Korean, and the unplanned Muslim speaker was in Arabic. In the afternoon, native languages were used, and worth noting that Arabic was not just “the Muslim language” but also that of the Syrian Orthodox and the Lutheran representatives.
Instead of a series of prayers lead by different religious groups, this time the afternoon session in the lower piazza of the Basilica San Francesco included a series of solemn commitments to peace by assorted religious leaders. This was introduced by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, and lead by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I. Ten religious leaders and another non-believer made their solemn commitments, followed by an address of Pope Benedict XVI, and closed with an invitation to exchange a sign of peace by Cardinal Kurt Koch of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews).
There is no question that it was a beautiful day, and inspiring simply to bring all of these people together as a witness for peace, the positive contribution of people of faith to the world, and even of the potential to overcome the modern myth of a necessary animosity between “people of faith” and “people of science” – ie, secularity.
Yet, there also is no question in my mind that something was lost with the over-emphasized intentional lack of prayer. How can a ‘pilgrimage’ be true to its nature without prayer? How can you gather religious leaders together, and tell them not to pray? This year, there were not even the sequestered opportunities for prayer that marked the last such event, in 2002, held in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, much less the series of prayers offered in public that marked the first event 25 years ago.
There was a moment of silence in the afternoon session for everyone to “pray or commit their thoughts to peace” – on one hand, very hospitable for even those who do not pray. On the other, I think the type of prayer offered in 1986 lends itself less to accusations of syncretism (exaggerated in either case), where each tradition is allowed to be true to itself, rather than having a single, mixed, everybody-do-what-you-want moment or prayer and positive thoughts.
Some of the speakers offered prayers spontaneously as part of their delivery, others quoted scriptures.
For our own part, an unplanned opportunity presented itself. In what must be a first for a papal event, the closing ceremony actually finished half an hour early, and the restaurant we planned for a quick pizza before returning to Rome was not yet open. With half an hour to kill, our group split in various directions, some to shop, some to wander, some to pray. About ten of us wandered up to the 13th century Church of Santo Stefano, a beautifully simple church whose bells were said to have miraculously pealed at the moment of Francis’ death.
As the Christians prayed in the front of the church, some of our Muslim pilgrims prepared for their own evening prayer, at the back of the church. As Christians finished, instead of walking out past the praying Muslims, most stopped and waited as respectful observers. It was just a few minutes, it was spontaneous, and it made the day a genuine pilgrimage of truth, for peace.
Disclaimer: You may have noticed some incongruity between posts and pictures. In the rush between returning to Rome from Assisi on Epiphany, and Nancy leaving for the states the next day, I did not have time to download our pics and videos from that part of the trip! So, I have had to make use of others’ photos. This is why the “Rainy Assisi” pics have blue skies!
The train station for Assisi is on the valley floor, in the “new” town called Santa Maria degli Angeli, after the church there – though still in the municipal limits of Assisi.
The Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary, [Queen] of the Angels) is constructed over the small chapel that Francis rebuilt in response to his vision of the San Damiano crucifix which told him to repair the Lords house which was falling into ruin. He thought it meant the small deteriorating chapel below the town, on some unused property of one of the local monasteries. Only later did he realize the Lord was probably not being so literal, and meant to reform the Church itself. It is easy to forget that the Reformations really started about 300 years before Luther!
Here in Rome there is a statue outside of the Lateran of St. Francis and companions pleading their case before Pope Innocent III, who, according to pious legend, had a dream of Francis supporting a tilting church and interpreted it to mean he would help sustain the Church from collapse.
The small chapel that he rebuilt, and the portion of land it is on, are known as the Porzincola – the small portion. After his death, they literally built the new basilica over his little chapel, which is still intact in the centre of the new church. It is not hard to imagine what he would say of this huge “memorial” to his humble little house of the people of God!
For those of us from the States, especially on the west coast, it is important to remember the history of Franciscan missionaries who brought their Assisi roots to California’s shores. Three of their many missions were named after churches here in Assisi: Santa Chiara inspired Santa Clara, San Francesco inspired San Francisco, and Francis’ Porzincola inspired the name of a little place – El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río de Porciúncula – more commonly known as L.A.
The day we decided to hike to the very top, to the Rocca Maggiore fortress, it was raining. Yet, the view was worth it, especially as a heavy fog rolled in from the valley devouring the town. Watching one big church after another disappear in a mist so thick as to be tangible, I was reminded of the old tales of Brigadoon (that, and of a Stephen King novel, the Mist). In this spiritual retreat centre of central Italy, three days with three very different characters served once again to remind me of the mystery and awe of God’s handiwork!
We spent the afternoon revisiting the shops to pick up souvenirs, and drying off in a Café just across form San Rufino Cathedral (also recommended by Rick Steves’). Unfortunately for me (or for my family, I guess), my memory of where I saw the gifts I wanted to get for some of my family did not serve, so I had to leave some places empty handed. We did find a place selling a local cheese made with black and white truffles, and fresh pasta, which we put together for dinner. Delicious! Such a pity Nancy left the cheese here when she left for home!
Only 3500 people live within the walls of the historic town, though 25,000 within the city limits which mostly sprawl on the valley below. For this small number, there are almost 100 churches. Ok so some of these have been deconsecrated, but still, for that number of Catholics in the U.S., one church the size of any of the basilicas would be more than sufficient! This could explain why you see sparse numbers at mass sometimes, is that there are too many options!
However, sparse numbers was not a problem in Assisi’s cathedral on a Tuesday afternoon. We had about half an hour to kill before the shuttle picked us up, and as I may have mentioned, it was raining. So we ducked inside the Cathedral thinking we could sit and pray or look at the artwork in relative comfort. The place was packed! But not a car in the piazza, which had been full on Sunday! Imagine a few hundred teens, a dozen Franciscan friars, and a Charismatic praise and worship service. And they say there is no life in the church here!