Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pope Benedict and Assisi III

On April 2, 2011, the Holy See's press office announced the details of Pope Benedict's 2011 visit to Assissi to preside over an ecumenical and interreligious gathering in a day of dialogue and prayer for peace::
On 1 January 2011, after the Angelus, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he wished to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the historic meeting that took place in Assisi on 27 October 1986, at the wish of the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II. On the day of the anniversary, 27 October this year, the Holy Father intends to hold a ‘Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world’, making a pilgrimage to the home of St. Francis and inviting fellow Christians from different denominations, representatives of the world’s religious traditions and, in some sense, all men and women of good will, to join him once again on this journey.

The Day will take as its theme: ‘Pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace’. Every human being is ultimately a pilgrim in search of truth and goodness. Believers too are constantly journeying towards God: hence the possibility, indeed the necessity, of speaking and entering into dialogue with everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, without sacrificing one’s own identity or indulging in forms of syncretism. To the extent that the pilgrimage of truth is authentically lived, it opens the path to dialogue with the other, it excludes no-one and it commits everyone to be a builder of fraternity and peace. These are the elements that the Holy Father wishes to place at the centre of reflection.

Invited to this event were "representatives of Christian communities and of the principal religious traditions" as well as professed agnostics "from the world of culture and science -- people who, while not professing to be religious, regard themselves as seekers of the truth and are conscious of a shared responsibility for the cause of justice and peace in this world of ours”.

The intinerary was a simple one. On October 27th, Pope Benedict and fellow delegates would board a train from Rome -- upon arrival in Assisi, they would make their way to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, "where the previous meetings will be recalled and the theme of the Day will be explored in greater depth. Leaders of some of the delegations present will make speeches and the Holy Father will likewise deliver an address". This in turn would be followed by a simple lunch and "a moment of silence for individual reflection and prayer", a "pilgrimage" to the Basilica of Saint Francis (also, again, "in silence"), and culminating in "a solemn renewal of the joint commitment to peace".

Reactions and Commentary

"Traditionalist" Catholics were (expectedly, and we should acknowledge, justifiably) wary of the Pope's call for yet another ecumenical/interreligious event at Assisi. Although Pope John Paul II had insisted that what would take place was not a manifestation of religious syncretism (representatives of the world's religions would not "come to pray together" but "to come together to pray"), the visutal images and impressions of the 1986 event provided much fodder for criticisms of such gatherings, unheard of in "pre-conciliar" times.

As recollected by Cardinal Oddi in 30 Giorni ["30 Days"] magazine:

... On that day, I went as the Pontifical Legate for the Basilica of St Francis, and I saw true profanations in some places of prayer. I saw Buddhists dancing around the altar, on which they had put Buddha in the place of Christ, and they were burning incense to the Buddha and venerating it. A Benedictine protested – he was thrown out by the police. I did not protest, but my heart was scandalized. Confusion was apparent on the faces of the Catholics who were attending the ceremony. I thought: if at this moment the Buddhists were to distribute bread consecrated to Buddha, these people would be capable of agreeing to eat it, perhaps with a greater devotion than when they receive the Host.

In fact, it was the first gathering of Assisi that, together with John Paul II's visit to the synagogue of Rome, reportedly prompted Archbishop Lefebvre to consecrete bishops and issue a furious denunciation of the "modernist and liberal religion of modern and conciliar Rome" (December 2, 1986):

The public sin against the one, true God, against the Incarnate Word, and His Church, makes us shudder with horror. John Paul II encourages the false religions to pray to their false gods—an immeasurable, unprecedented scandal.

See "Assisi Revisited" (The Remnant February 15, 1987 - republished) for a characteristicaly traditionalist critique of the events of Assissi, 1986. A compilation of traditionalist criticisms of Assisi (I-III) is available at the SSPX website.

Responding to the criticism, Fr John Hunwicke suggested that the Holy Father's traditionalist critics "wait it out":

Considering Papa Ratzinger's subtlety and his views on the necessarily coherent, non-self-contradictory, nature of the Tradition and of the Magisterium, I can't help feeling that his intention to have the meeting in that particular place may have, as one its purposes, a resolution of the worrying ambiguities in the original event.

Can't we wait and see what actually happens? If all is done with propriety, then presumambly the Holy Father is saying 'This is what the true contextualised meaning of these occasions is; so let nobody in the future claim that the rough edges in the original format afford precedents for syncretism.'

So, how did it turn out?

From the Vatican, the booklet for the celebration and the addresses of the Holy Father:

The Pope and "the Agnostics"

Of particular interest and discussion was Pope Benedict's focus on agnostics (as distinguished from "militant atheists") in his address at Assisi. Here is the relevant excerpts:

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”.

Some were able to appreciate the Holy Father's words (see Michael Potemra (and related commentators) at National Review). Others were not too keen (ex. mixed reception from readers of the "traditionalist" blog Rorate Caeli, with one observing that the vast majority of "agnostics" in this day and age "are simply too worldly to be bothered to find out more about God, or are too averse to the idea of "absolute truth" to want to concede the truth of Christianity, or indeed of any religious system that claims to be true."

It is noted that this is not the first time the Pope has praised agnostics. During the papal mass at Freiburg Airport in September (apostolic visit to Germany), the Pope stated:

“Agnostics, who are constantly exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart but suffer on account of our sin, are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is 'routine' and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting their hearts be touched by faith.”

Additional Addresses (La Stampa's "The Vatican Insider")

Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the crypt of Saint Francis at the end of the meeting 'Pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace ' a day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world at the Saint Francis Basilica on October 27, 2011 in Assisi, Italy. Source: Getty Images

Additional Coverage and Commentary

  • From Sandro Magister, a personal letter of Pope Benedict XVI -- responding to concerns about Assisi expressed by longtime friend and Luthern pastor Peter Beyerhaus:
    "I understand very well," the pope writes, "your concern about participating in the encounter of Assisi. But this commemoration would have been celebrated in any case, and, in the end, it seemed to me the best thing to go there personally, in order to try to determine the overall direction. Nonetheless, I will do everything I can to make a syncretistic or relativistic interpretation of the event impossible, and to make it clear that I will always believe and confess what I had called the Church's attention to with 'Dominus Iesus'."
  • FromRorate-Caeli, a list of those in attendance at Assisi III:
    • "From the Eastern Churches, 17 delegations";
    • "From the Western Churches and ecclesial communities, 13 delegations will be present";
    • From Jewish Organizations: delegations of the "International Committee on Interreligious Consultation", "of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel", the "Chief Rabbi of Rome";
    • "4 personalities in representation of the Traditional Religions of Africa, America, and India";
    • "18 people" of "religions related to the Indian subcontinent";
    • "67 Buddhists";
    • the "President of the Confucianism Association", "the President of the Tao Association", "2 Shinto delegations from Japan", representatives of "the New Religions of Japan";
    • "48 Muslims" from "Arab countries and the Middle East, and from Western nations", including "a representative of the King of Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques", and "5 personalities, accompanied by other 7 Muslim representatives" from "Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Indonesia;
    • And also 4 invited guests of the Pontifical Council for Culture, including a member of the Austrian Communist Party.

    From the "Vatican Insider" (La Stampa), A more detailed list of attendees by name (including Mahatma Ghandi’s grandson), noting that "for the first time ever, leaders of world religions will be meeting at the tomb of St. Francis" to pay personal tribute to the saint.

    According to Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the presence of atheists (and/or presumably "agnostics") at Assissi was at the specific request of the Holy Father ("Vatican Insider" 10/15/2011):

    "It was an idea of ??Benedict XVI's", says the cardinal of Milan, "and he himself presented it during a meeting with some cardinals in sight of the preparations for Assisi. " In doing so, explains Ravasi, "Ratzinger shows that he holds in great esteem an ancient teaching of Christian theology: man is made of natural and supernatural. The supernatural does not remove or destroy nature, but perfects it. It sets itself, that is, an additional element, but does not eliminate human nature. So the invitation of the Pope's attempt to reassert the importance of the relationship between faith and reason."

    The four atheists who participate in Assisi are the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva (who will speak before Benedict XVI), the Italian thinker philosophy professor at UCLA in Los Angeles Bodei Remo, the British philosopher Anthony Grayling, which established the New College of Letters and Philosophy, London, and Mexico's Guillermo Hurtado, founder of the second period of the history and philosophy magazine Dianoia. The day before the meeting in Assisi, October 26, the four will participate in a panel discussion in the main hall of the Rectorate of Roma 3 University.

Pope Benedict XVI and Archbiscop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (in red) pray with other religious leaders in front of the cript of Saint Francis. Source: Getty Images

  • Austen Ivereigh (America comments on "The hidden history of the Assisi gatherings". The impression is given that "these gatherings have been entirely the initiatives of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and that little has happened between the three gatherings of 1986, 2002 and today's." Not so:
    What it missed out is that every year since 1987, the Community of Sant'Egidio -- which played a major role, along with Focolare and Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, in preparing Assisi I -- has held an annual prayer for peace in a different city"in the spirit of Assisi" and following a similar format (speeches, prayers, common pledge of peace), intended to develop a "spiritual humanism of peace".

    The 1986 gathering was originally designed as a one-off event, with no plans to repeat it or continue it in any way. The fact that it has become embedded in the life of the Church is down to Sant'Egidio's annual gatherings and Focolare's conferences "in the spirit of Assisi".

    That experience has been heavily drawn on to prepare today's event. What is billed as the great innovation of Assisi III, for example, the inclusion of nonbelievers, has happened for years at the annual Sant'Egidio gatherings.

  • Taking his cue from Assissi, Paul Bhatti, Pakistani PM’s Special Councillor for Minority Affairs (and also a Catholic), has announced interreligious Congress in Islamabad, in early 2012:
    The meeting will be on the theme of harmony and peaceful coexistence and we will be inviting guests of international renown. It will send a message of peace to the entire nation.”

    The Councillor intends to commit “to interreligious dialogue, on a National and international level, with the aim of improving conditions for religious minorities in Pakistan. All people of goodwill will need to be called, to unite together for the common good of the nation.”

  • The concerns and complaints of Assissi's critics were validated by at least one instance of abuse, where inside the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, an African pagan priest sang a prayer to the pagan deity of Olokun. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf remarks:
    When something is consecrated, it should be used for sacred purposes or at least purposes that are not contrary to the Faith. Was that African holy man doing something contrary to our Faith? I can’t say for sure, because I don’t know enough about what that fellow actually sang. I don’t understand that language. But it sure looks like he did. My immediate impression was not good. At the very least, the choice to have that in a consecrated church shows little regard on the part of the organizers for the appearance of things. It was also wrong to be so insensitive to the Catholic sensibilities of members of our Holy Church.

    I am trying to imagine what St. Francis, who as tough as nails when it came to the faith and nobody’s fool, would have said about that chant in a consecrated church.

    For pity’s sake, couldn’t the organizers have learned from the mistakes made at Assisi I, back in the day?

    In any event, I don’t think this is worth freaking out over. No doubt some people will say that this was Pope Benedict’s fault, as if he made out the schedule and took that fellow up to the microphone himself. I doubt any of the organizers intended to do anything contrary to the Catholic Faith, but I am irritated that these people seem not to be able to learn from the past.

  • Finally, John Allen Jr. draws attention to the man "behind the scenes" at Assissi III, "papal contender" Peter Cardinal Turkson of Ghana:
    Rome saw a striking coincidence this week, which could be either simple luck or a sign of things to come. There were two big-ticket Vatican news flashes, Monday's note on reform of the international economy and Thursday's summit of religious leaders in Assisi. In both cases, the same Vatican official was a prime mover: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

    Turkson, still young in church terms at 63, was the chief organizer of the Assisi gathering, just as he was the top signatory on the document blasting "neo-liberal" ideologies and calling for a "true world political authority" to regulate the economy. During Vatican press conferences to present both, Turkson was the star attraction each time.

    Can anyone say, papabile?

    Before getting over-heated, however, three cautions are in order ... [Read the rest]