Dilatato Corde 1:2
July - December, 2011
Pope Benedict appraoching the lectern to deliver his concluding remarks to the gathering in Assisi.
Pope Benedict appraoching the lectern to deliver his concluding remarks to the gathering in Assisi.

Assisi, October 27, 2011
Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace

“We will continue to meet.”

These parting words of Pope Benedict XVI to those who joined him in Assisi to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace convoked by Pope John Paul II in 1986, may have been among the most important words spoken that day.

Back in Rome on the following day, the Pope again spoke to the delegations that had taken part with him in what he described as a “day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for justice and peace in the world.” He noted that “meetings of this sort are necessarily exceptional and infrequent.” Nonetheless, he reiterated the “continuing need for men and women of different religions to testify together that the journey of the spirit is always a journey of peace.” With these words Pope Benedict clearly indicated that the gathering in Assisi was held not simply to commemorate the historic and bold initiative of Pope John Paul II, but, even more, to be a sign of the Catholic Church’s intention to continue and deepen a spiritual dialogue with followers of other religions, and also, as he went on to say, with “people of good will who follow no religious tradition but are committed to the search for truth . . . [and] desire to work together to build a better world.”

On Wednesday, October 26, the day before Assisi, the weekly papal audience was transformed into a “Prayer in Preparation of the Meeting in Assisi: Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.” It was originally scheduled to take place in Saint Peter’s Square, but because of rain it was transferred to the Paul VI Audience Hall, which was not able to accommodate all those who were planning to attend the audience that day. The service was basically a Liturgy of the Word consisting of an English reading from Zechariah 9:9-10 (“See now, your king comes to you. . . . He will proclaim peace for the nations”), Psalm 84 [85], sung in Italian, (“Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss”), and Luke 10:1-11, read in French (“In whatever house you enter, first say ‘Peace to this house’”), followed by the Pope’s homily in Italiansolemn intercessions in eight languages. The service concluded with the Lord’s Prayer, a blessing, and the Salve Regina, all in Latin. Since the “congregation” at this service was mainly made up of foreigners—tourists/pilgrims who were including a papal audience in their visit to Rome—a much shorter homily, given in several languages, might have been a more effective way of relating the Scriptures to the following day’s activities in Assisi and inviting prayer. 

The day in Assisi began at 10:30 in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. As in 1986, the Pope and the invited representatives were seated on a raised platform in front of the Portiuncula. Following an introduction given by the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana, and the showing of a film recalling the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace, there were ten speeches described as “Testimonies for Peace.” They were given by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the Archbishop of Canterbury, an Armenian Archbishop from France, the Secretary General of the World Council of Churches, a representative of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, a spokesperson for the Ifa and Yoruba Religion, a representative of the Hindu religion, the President of a Korean Buddhist order, the Secretary General of the International Conference of Islamic Schools, and a humanist. The last speaker, a Bulgarian professor, was the only woman on the program. The speeches were given in English, French, Korean, and Arabic, with Italian translations provided in the printed program, the cover of which contained illuminations taken from the Saint John’s Bible. Had more of the speeches actually been “testimonies”—that is, personal narratives of how the beliefs and practices of one’s spiritual tradition have, in fact, contributed to resolving conflict and creating a just peace—the format could have worked. But a series of ten talks, many of them offering intellectual reflections on the relation between religion and peace, was challenging for even the most attentive listener, notwithstanding the fact that they were relatively short (about five to seven minutes) and interspersed with musical interludes,

Among the interventions that I especially remember were those of the Rev. Dr. Olas Fykse Tveit of the WCC, who called on religious leaders, most of them advanced in years, to give heed to courageous young “Change Makers” such as was Francis of Assisi; of Prof. Wambe Ambimbola, who in his plea that indigenous religions be given the same respect and considerations as other religions included African religious chants in his presentation;  and of Rabbi David Rosen, who said that according to Hebrew thought, “the physical symbolism [of pilgrimage] sought to imbue a state of mind in the pilgrim’s consciousness, of spiritual ascent, of being even closer to God; and consequently to be in accord with the Divine Will and commandments.” Whether he intended to say so or not, his words implied that pilgrimage is a form of prayer, and therefore those who accepted the Pope’s invitation to come to Assisi as “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace” were praying together, even though the organizers insisted that common prayer would not be part of this interreligious gathering.

The morning session concluded with an address by Pope Benedict in which he confessed that Christians were among those who had engaged in religiously motivated violence, adding, “We acknowledge it with great shame.”  But we must not forget, he insisted, the horrendous violence committed in the name of anti-religion. He concluded his address with a positive appraisal of “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.” These people, he said, “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.”

The second session, held at 4:30 PM in the lower courtyard of the Basilica of Saint Francis, was in marked contrast to the first. In the morning we were an assembly of academics seated in a lecture hall. On that beautiful fall afternoon, however, as we milled about the piazza in front of the basilica, it felt like we were part of a family reunion or a town festival. The friendly and relaxed atmosphere was enhanced by Gen Verde, a multiartistic performing group of the Focolare Movement made up of twenty members from twelve nations, who for about an hour before the beginning of the session, presented a program of song and dance that might be described as “globalized soft Christian rock.” 

At 4:30 the Heads of Delegations again took their places with Pope Benedict on a raised platform. The session was opened by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who began his address with the words, “In the silence which became prayer. . . .” Fourteen representatives of various churches, religious traditions, and non-believers then made short statements expressing their commitment to peace. These statements were given in French, Arabic, Hindi, Russian, American (the accent left no doubt!), Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Hebrew, Italian, and Spanish, with English and Italian translations provided.  Music provided by a pianist, violinist, and harpist accompanied the reading of these texts.


Lighted lamps were then presented to the delegates, a sign of peace was exchanged, and during the singing of a final hymn and the releasing of doves, the Holy Father and the Heads of Delegations left the platform for a silent visit the tomb of Saint Francis before departing for the train that would take them back to Rome.

 The lasting impression of this day in Assisi is that interreligious dialogue has now become “something that Catholics do,” an essential element of what it means to be Catholic. Those who came to Assisi in 1986 knew they were taking part in a ground-breaking, historic event in the life of the Catholic Church; in 2011 it felt as if the course had been set and we were now en route.

Undoubtedly, there is still work to be done to map out the route that lies ahead and to free it of obstacles. We still have not come to a clear understanding of how it may be possible for people of different religious traditions to pray together, even though one senses that there is a widespread desire for common prayer, indeed a sense that if religious people are willing to enter into dialogue with one another and to work together for the common good, they should be able to pray together, doing so in a way that respects their different understandings of the God to whom they pray. Perhaps the insights and example of Christian de Chergé may help us find a way to resolve this dilemma. As he put it, “Dire Dieu autrement n’est pas dire un autre Dieu.” Just because we may speak about God differently doesn’t mean we are speaking of a different God. As we continue to grow in our knowledge and friendship with other “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace,” we will surely come to a deeper understanding of how we may together take refuge in and draw strength from the Source of all truth and peace.

[Some photos taken at the afternoon session can be found in the "Images" section of the website.]

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