Last week Pope Francis traveled to Assisi to meet and pray with leaders from the world’s religions to pray for peace. It’s hard to believe that it has been 30 years since the first gathering at Assisi took place.
Pope Saint John Paul II convened this first summit of religious leaders to gather and pray for peace in the world. It was an historic event that some in the church hailed and others lamented. Those who were dismayed complained that Pope John Paul broke with tradition by placing Catholicism on the same level as other world religions. Some contend that it was the catalyst that sent the traditionalist followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre into schism, as he explained that he was acting to protect Catholicism from the “spirit of Vatican II and the spirit of Assisi.”
Opposition was also shared by some fundamentalist Protestants like the Rev. Carl McIntire, founder and minister of the Bible Presbyterian Church, who said that the Assisi gathering was the “greatest single abomination in church history.”
Despite the opposition from within and outside the church, Pope John Paul repeated the event twice. And Pope Benedict XVI participated in the Assisi gathering, stating afterward that he was “very happy” with the results.
These events signaled to the church and the world that the interreligious outreach of the Roman Catholic Church ignited at the Second Vatican Council was irrevocable and emblematic of the church in the modern world. It was also the dawn of a new role for the Successor of Saint Peter in fostering world peace and religious harmony in the world. The papacy was fully exercising its role as Pontifex Maximus, the chief bridge builder.
The message of Assisi was simple and clear: that religion does not have to be a cause of conflict and division, and that it should serve as a catalyst in resolving human divisions by promoting harmony and peace.
“We have come to Assisi as pilgrims in search of peace,” Pope Francis remarked to the more than 400 leaders from dozens of different traditions and religions.
“We carry within us and place before God the hopes and sorrows of many persons and peoples, we thirst for peace, we desire to witness to peace. Above all we need to pray for peace, because peace is God’s gift and it lies with us to plead for it, embrace it and build it every day with God’s help” said Pope Francis.
Before the closing ceremony of the three day gathering, Pope Francis along with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, his good friend, met with other Christian leaders gathered for the event, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to deliver a special message encouraging peace in the world.
He said to them, “Before Christ Crucified, ‘the power and wisdom of God’ (I Cor 1:24), we Christians are called to contemplate the mystery of Love not loved and to pour out mercy upon the world. On the Cross, the tree of life, evil was transformed into good; we too, as disciples of the Crucified One, are called to be ‘trees of life’ that absorb the contamination of indifference and restore the pure air of love to the world. From the side of Christ on the Cross water flowed, that symbol of the Spirit who gives life (Jn 19:34), so that from us, his faithful, compassion may flow forth for all who thirst today.”
One of the interreligious participants, a Hindu, Indian writer and activist, Sudheendra Kulkarni, spoke of the significance of Pope Francis’ role at the Assisi event. He said, “Pope Francis is at one level the head of the Catholic Church in the world, but at another level he is the moral conscience keeper of the world. His message is for the entire humanity. Today he is one of those rare voices in the world, which is reminding us that we have to change this world. We have to change this world in a way that the poor are respected, the poor have justice, and the poor can live in a secure world. Second, he is one of those great global leaders who are speaking very spiritedly for the protection of ecology. He is in fact known as a Green Pope and we in India respect him for this, and will be very happy to see Pope Francis visiting India at his earliest opportunity.”
When Saint John Paul II convened the first Assisi gathering, the world was unsettled by the Cold War of the two world powers. Today the world is immersed in smaller wars and conflicts. Religion still plays a hand in much of the suffering of displaced people due to war and terrorism. The clarion call to the leaders of people of faith is not to allow religion or the name of God to be invoked in violence or war. Every religion holds fast to the belief that peace and harmony among all God’s children is God’s will and desire. Let all people of good will work together to enjoy a world devoid of war and violence.
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.