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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.
Time Flies. Two years on the Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies have come and gone. For those who know me well, it is unsurprising that my two major goals here – learn Italian and write my thesis – are still works in progress, despite a number of other accomplishments.
I am returning for a third year to the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, Rome’s pre-eminent collegio for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free lay students. Which is, basically, anyone who cannot play on a pontifical university football (soccer) team for the annual Clericus Cup – but I digress.
Only two of us, aside from director Donna Orsuto and assistant Robert White, are back for a third consecutive year: the other being my newly-wed friend and next-door neighbor from Morelia, Mexico, David. Others who were here last year, or at least part of the year, include Muhamed (Bosnia), Marija (Croatia), and Julia (Hong Kong).
In total, we have citizens of 16 countries this year:
Belarus, Bosnia, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Georgia, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Romania, Serbia, and the U.S.A.
Religiously we are:
- 1 Secular Jew
- 3 Muslims (2 Sunni, 1 Shi’a)
- 4 Orthodox Christians (Belarusian, Georgian, Romanian, and Serbian Churches)
- 13 Catholic Christians (12 Latin, 1 Syro-Malabar)
This year I also start a new role continuing the relationship with the Russell Berrie Foundation, through the Institute for International Education, in the form of a graduate assistantship at the new John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, housed at the Angelicum.
The first month back in Italy consisted of jet lag, a severe cold, orientation week for new Lay Centre residents, and then orientation week for new Russell Berrie Fellows. The tesina awaits. There are a few highlights I will be, ah, highlighting shortly.
The Russell Berrie Foundation supports an enormous amount of activity in a wide variety of fields. The John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue and the Russell Berrie Fellowships at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome are just the most recent, though positioned to have profound impact on the life of the church.
One aspect of the Foundation’s work in Rome is the sponsorship of an annual John Paul II Lecture in Interreligious Understanding, featuring a prominent scholar or religious leader. The inaugural lecture was delivered in 2008 by Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and the second was offered in 2009 by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich. After two years of leading pastors, this year’s lecture was delivered by a world-class scholar, Dr. Mona Siddiqui of the University of Glasgow.
The original date for the lecture was to take place the day before our Mosque visit, but was delayed to volcanic activity! It turned out to be a good way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, however!
The Berrie Fellows had the privilege to lunch with Dr. Siddiqui, Ms. Angelica Berrie, and the members of the Foundation and the IIE who were in town for the event yesterday after the seminar on Mary in Islam. In an unexpected re-enactment of the wisdom from Luke 14.1-11, I had situated myself at the end of the table to allow others near the honored guest, and after some shuffling I suddenly found myself placed between Dr. Siddiqui and Ms. Berrie – two fascinating women! And both so very approachable, a gift I appreciate more and more the longer I am in service to the Church.
During today’s featured lecture, Dr. Siddiqui addressed the history of interaction between Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Islamic perspective, and focusing on the religious rather than the political realities of our day. The importance of dialogue is something she underlined, not for the sake of conversion, but for the sake of compassion.
“Furthermore, many in the West are aware that despite media frenzy at times, dialogue is not a necessity, it is an option even a privilege. Inter religious work can be a symbol of unity across civilisations and it can also reverberate amongst the followers of the faith. But it works best when there is both text and context. There are many Muslims and Christians who remain convinced that dialogue is fundamentally flawed, not just theologically but also in practical terms. How can Muslims and Christians talk about the same God when they hold such different understandings of the same God? If dialogue is not directed at conversion to Christ or to the event of the Qur’an, what is its real purpose? …
Inter religious work has never been about implicit or explicit conversion. As a Muslim who has lived most of her life in the West, I have learnt that faith speaks to faith in many ways. Dialogue has been a process of learning and accepting, of questioning and appreciating, of self-doubt and humility. Most importantly it has been to understand that talking about a common humanity demands much generosity in the face of practical difference.”
Dr. Mona Siddiqui presaged tomorrow’s Annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Dialogue with a visit to the seminar Fr. Fred Bliss has been conducting on Mary in Ecumenical Dialogue (which incidentally, uses the Seattle Statement as its primary text). This is my summary of her presentation, with a little reflection.
One of the few things most (western) Christians would know about Islam is that Jesus is respected as a prophet and messenger of God – though not as God himself. Less well known is that Mary is also mentioned from the Qur’an, and considered by some also as a prophet (though not a Messenger). She is, in fact, referenced more frequently in the pages of the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Instead of Mary, Mother of God, the reference is almost always to ‘Isâ, son of Miryam. Mary’s elevation to a place of respect is owing to her being mother of one of the great prophets. There are 114 suras (chapters) in the Muslim holy book, eight of which are devoted to, or named for, a person. One of these is Mary of Nazareth, to whom the 19th sura is dedicated.
Islam does not hold a view of original sin and the need for salvation from sin that dominates Augustinian-influenced Christianity. Adam’s first act of sin was also his first act of the will, and was apparently a part of the divine plan from the beginning that he would populate the Earth (which is part of the result of his choice). We are not born into a state of sin so much as we are inclined to commit particular sins. Nevertheless there is a sort of myth that sometime before birth, we are each of us ‘pricked’ by the devil, which has a similar effect. Mary and Jesus were spared this pricking for much the same reason that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was developed, to recognize Mary’s holiness and purity as a worthy mother of a great prophet and Messenger.
The virgin birth of Jesus is affirmed, though the Qur’an and its commentators never focus as much on the physicality of all this, as in some of the extreme Christian views. For Islam, Mary’s purity was ethical and spiritual rather than physical. And nothing about a perpetual virginity.
She is a popular person of devotion, especially for Muslim women. Her role is perhaps not as prominent as Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, who is especially revered among Shi’ah Muslims as the mother of successors to the Prophet Mohammad.