Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Assisi Three and the question of multireligious prayer

I have for a few months now been reading a book by Christian Salenson entitled Christian de Cherge: une theologie de l'esperance. Christian de Cherge was the prior of the Cistercian monastery in Tibhirine, the monastery that is the subject of the film Des Hommes et des Dieux (Of Gods and Men, in the English translation of the title). The book is a study of Christian de Cherge's understanding of inter-religious dialogue, and particularly, of his understanding of Christian-Moslem dialogue. The richness of Christian de Cherge's theology of inter-religious dialogue is that it is one rooted in a lived experience of life among the Moslem peoples of Algeria, though it does not lack intellectual insight for all that.

In the early sections of the book reference is made to a number of what one might call "milestones" in the development of the Catholic Church's engagement in inter-religious dialogue. One of these milestones is the day of prayer for peace in Assisi in October 1986, a milestone which has become topical because of the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI of his intention to visit Assisi to mark the 25th anniversary of this milestone. Speaking in St Peter's Square after praying the Angelus on 1st January 2011, Pope Benedict said:
Dear brothers and sisters, in my Message for today’s World Day of Peace I have had the opportunity to emphasize that the great religions can constitute an important factor of unity and peace for the human family. In this regard, moreover, I recalled that this year, 2011, is the 25th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace which Venerable John Paul II convoked in Assisi in 1986.

Therefore next October I shall go as a pilgrim to the town of St Francis, inviting my Christian brethren of various denominations, the exponents of the world’s religious traditions to join this Pilgrimage and ideally all men and women of good will. It will aim to commemorate the historical action desired by my Predecessor and to solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service to the cause of peace.
Now, some comment identifies the Assisi day of prayer in 1986 as a "low point" in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, as being something all but indefensible; in the light of Pope Benedict's forthcoming pilgrimage to mark the 25th anniversary of that event, the same comment tries to distinguish clearly between Pope John Paul II's "Assisi One" and Pope Benedict's "Assisi Three", suggesting that the latter will in no way be a repeat of the former and will act as a corrective to the former. To evaluate this comment, I think it is necessary to understand properly the answer to two questions.

What was "Assisi One"?

The texts of the addresses and homilies of Pope John Paul II during the Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi can be found from this page at the website of the Holy See. The Holy Father's address of welcome and his address at the conclusion of the day offer insights into the nature of the events of that day.
Prayer entails conversion of heart on our part. It means deepening our sense of the ultimate Reality. This is the very reason for our coming together in this place.

We shall go from here to our separate places of prayer. Each religion will have the time and opportunity to express itself in its own traditional rite. Then from these separate places of prayer, we will walk in silence towards the lower Square of Saint Francis. Once gathered in the Square, again each religion will be able to present its own prayer, one after the other.

Having thus prayed separately, we shall meditate in silence on our own responsibility to work for peace. We shall then declare symbolically our commitment to peace. At the end of the Day, I shall try to express what this unique celebration will have said to my heart, as a believer in Jesus Christ and the first servant of the Catholic Church.
Yes, there is the dimension of prayer, which in the very real diversity of religions tries to express communication with a Power above all our human forces.
Peace depends basically on this Power, which we call God, and as Christians believe has revealed himself in Christ.

This is the meaning of this World Day of Prayer.

For the first time in history, we have come together from every where, Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities, and World Religions, in this sacred place dedicated to Saint Francis, to witness before the world, each according to his own conviction, about the transcendent quality of peace.

The form and content of our prayers are very different, as we have seen, and there can be no question of reducing them to a kind of common denominator.

Yes, in this very difference we have perhaps discovered anew that, regarding the problem of peace and its relation to religious commitment, there is something which binds us together.

The challenge of peace, as it is presently posed to every human conscience, is the problem of a reasonable quality of life for all, the problem of survival for humanity, the problem of life and death.

In the face of such a problem, two things seem to have supreme importance and both of them are common to us all.

The first is the inner imperative of the moral conscience, which enjoins us to respect, protect and promote human life, from the womb to the deathbed, for individuals and peoples, but especially for the weak, the destitute, the derelict: the imperative to overcome selfishness, greed and the spirit of vengeance.

The second common thing is the conviction that peace goes much beyond human efforts, particularly in the present plight of the world, and therefore that its source and realization is to be sought in that Reality beyond all of us.

This is why each of us prays for peace. Even if we think, as we do, that the relation between that Reality and the gift of peace is a different one, according to our respective religious convictions, we all affirm that such a relation exists.

This is what we express by praying for it.

I humbly repeat here my own conviction: peace bears the name of Jesus Christ.
There is an absolute conformity between the understanding that Cardinal Ratzinger subsequently (2003)described as "multireligious" prayer in the section "Multireligious and interreligious prayer" of his book Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions and the prayer described here in the words of Pope John Paul II. Multireligious prayer is a prayer "alongside" those of other religions, and not a prayer "with" them, which would be "interreligious" prayer.  Assisi One was not an event of "interreligious prayer", something about which Cardinal Ratzinger expressed a clear doubt in the same section of his book. Instead, it was an event of "multireligious" prayer.

There remains a question about the use of Catholic Churches in Assisi as places of prayer by those of non-Christian religions and, perhaps, some insensitivity in the way in which those adherents of other religions made use of the space dedicated for Christian prayer. I expect that there is some legitimacy in these concerns, though I have not been able to track down with certainty exactly what happened in this regard. [Two reports I was able to find of what happened in the Church used by Buddhist believers differed in details.] It is interesting to note that the "Order of the Day" for the Day of Prayer for Peace on 24th January 2002 - Assisi Two - suggests that the non-Christian religions did not use Churches as their places for prayer on this second occasion.

What did Cardinal Ratzinger say about Assisi One, and what does Pope Benedict XVI think of Assisi One?

In the section of Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions referred to above, Cardinal Ratzinger highlighted two conditions for an appropriate multireligious prayer that might be seen as an evaluation of Assisi One. He firstly argues that it cannot be the normal form of religious life but must remain "exceptional", and be confined to situations that call for a particular pleading to God before the whole of humanity - such as is the case for a prayer for peace at a time of particular violence. Cardinal Ratzinger's second point is that there is a need for a very careful explanation of exactly what is taking place - and what is not taking place - to answer the false interpretations of events, false interpretations that are inevitable and almost certainly involve an indifference towards what is and is not believed, and the dissolution of real faith. I would expect that these two points will apply just as much to Assisi Three in October 2011 as they do to Assisi One in October 1986.

But, in the same section of Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Cardinal Ratzinger cites the World Days of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986 and 2002 as the model for multireligious prayer, and affirms the legitimacy of such a prayer, subject to his two conditions just described:
The model for multireligious prayer is offered by the two World Days of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, in 1986 and 2002.... There are undeniable dangers, and it is indisputable that the Assisi meetings, especially in 1986, were misinterpreted by many people. It would, on the other hand, be wrong to reject, completely and unconditionally, multireligious prayer of the kind I have described. To me, the right thing in this case seems to be, rather, to link it with conditions corresponding to the demands of inner truth and responsibility for such a great undertaking as the public appeal to God before all the world.
[Note: I have not been able to track down and verify reports that Cardinal Ratzinger said that Assisi One should not be seen as a "model for interreligious dialogue", or other criticisms that he is reported to have made of Assisi One. If I can track them down, I will update this post accordingly.]

If we wish to grasp what Pope Benedict XVI now thinks of Assisi One, we have only to read again the words with which he has announced his intention to visit Assisi this coming October, quoted above:
It [ie the visit in October 2011] will aim to commemorate the historical action desired by my Predecessor and to solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service to the cause of peace.

In other words, Pope Benedict believes that the event of Assisi One is worthy of commemoration and that it was an event he sees as being "historic" in character.

In summary: I think we need to have an accurate understanding of what actually happened during Assisi One, and not rely on misunderstandings reported in the media; we need to be clear that Cardinal Ratzinger's acknowledgement of the dangers surrounding events like Assisi One do not constitute a rejection of their legitimacy; and we need to take on board that, as the successor of Peter, Pope Benedict XVI considers the 25th anniversary of Assisi One to be a date worth marking.


Rita said...

Thanks for this, it is actually really helpful. So many people saw what JPII did in Assisi as groundbreaking. I do think it is wrong to judge a papacy and evaluate high and low points. It is simply a papacy and it bears fruit or it doesn't.

BTW: am I being thick or something, but what is/was Assisi two?

Joe said...


Assisi One is the 1986 Day of Prayer in Assisi.

Assisi Two is a similar meeting that took place in January 2002 - after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. An interesting point to note about the 2002 event is that the non-Christian religions do not appear to have used Churches as their places of prayer, something that, so far as I can tell, did happen in 1986 and caused (still causes) some of the adverse comment about Assisi One.

Anonymous said...

Zero says
Goodness this is a long blog and I only read the beginning,but I would like to suggest
1) see "Of Gods and men" which is a wonderful film(and the actor who plays Christien is a good looker!)
2) If you haven't been to Assisi take a trip-it's a beautiful place and it is marvellous to walk in St Francis' footsteps.

Joe said...


Now I understand why stayed awake during "Of Gods and Men", but fell asleep during "Into Great Silence"!

Anonymous said...

RE: [Cardinal Ratzinger said that Assisi One should not be seen as a "model for interreligious dialogue"]

Pope Benedict XVI made the comment to the Austrian Daily Press on 4 April 1998. You can also find it referenced in John Allen's Bio of Pope Benedict XVI in Chapter 6, pages 217 & 218

Joe said...


Thank you for the comment. I had seen the reference in John Allen's book, but wanted to verify it - and haven't so far been able to do so.

I wonder whether, in the light of what he subsequently wrote, Cardinal Ratzinger was trying to distinguish between "interreligious" and "multirelgious prayer" in his press comment, and only one part of his distinction has been picked up?

I really would like to be able to read the original news reports!