VATICAN CITY — A Christian must never yield to the temptation “to become a wolf among wolves,” but should work instead to build a kingdom of peace in which Christ is King, Pope Benedict XVI said today, Oct. 26, at a special Liturgy of the Word on the eve of tomorrow’s special day of prayer for peace in Assisi, Italy.
Addressing pilgrims this morning in the Paul VI hall, the Pope said, “It is not the sword of the conqueror that builds peace, but the sword of those who suffer and give up their own lives.” He reminded the faithful that they must journey like Christ: “not with the might of war or the force of power ... but with the giving of self, with love carried to its extreme consequences, even towards our enemies.”
Turning to tomorrow’s event, which will be attended by more than 300 interreligious leaders and nonbelievers from 50-plus countries, the Pope asked for prayers and said he hoped it would “encourage dialogue” among people of different religious affiliations “so that rancor will give way to pardon, division to reconciliation, hatred and violence to love and gentleness: that peace reign in the world.”
The “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World” is taking place for two main reasons: to mark the 25th anniversary since Blessed Pope John Paul II convened the first such meeting and to show how the world’s religions can be an instrument and sign of peace in today’s world. The day’s theme is “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.”
In an interview with Vatican Radio Oct. 26, Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said the Pope convoked this year’s meeting because “we are living in a precarious world where, alas, justice and peace are not secure for everyone. Every day we see that arms speak louder than international law.”
This year’s meeting will have two major differences compared to the previous ones held in 1986, 1993 and 2002: Participants won’t visibly pray together, and a small group of nonbelievers will be attending for the first time.
The avoidance of joint visible prayer is an attempt to avoid syncretistic and relativistic “mood music” that arose out of the previous Assisi meetings, a well-known concern of many, and especially of Pope Benedict XVI. In a letter to a Lutheran pastor in March of this year, the Holy Father said he promised to “do everything in order that a syncretistic or relativistic interpretation of the event will be impossible,” adding that the event would reflect the contents of Dominus Iesus, the 2000 declaration that re-emphasized the Church’s teaching that the Catholic Church is the sole, true Church of Christ.
“The meeting has been set up very carefully, so the Holy Father’s wishes are most fully and properly met,” a Vatican official involved in the event told the Register Oct. 25. He pointed out that the day of prayer and pilgrimage “shows the convening power of the See of Peter: the recognition there’s no other religious leader who has authority and stature to call together so many leaders in this way.”
“It’s a view that doesn’t come from us,” he added, “but, rather, what other religious leaders have said.”
At a press conference earlier this month, Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, stressed that the emphasis is “on pilgrimage rather than on praying together,” but added that this was not meant as a judgment on Blessed John Paul II’s Assisi meetings. Rather, it was an attempt to be clear that joint prayer is not on the agenda in order to ensure that the specific identity and the differences of each religion will be respected.
Some traditionalists are still wary of the event, however, and believe it weakens the Church’s teaching that she already possesses the fullness of truth. The Society of St. Pius X, which has no canonical status in the Church, has been opposed to these meetings from the beginning because of its syncretistic dangers. It has called on its members to hold a day of prayer and penance on Oct. 27. Other traditionalists are hoping the event might offer the Pope an opportunity to make a bold and courageous assertion of the Church’s unique salvific role.
Among those attending will be the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, a Lutheran minister and secretary general of the World Council of Churches, and the chief rabbis of Israel and Rome. Also, there will be representatives of the traditional religions of Africa, America and India, a large group of Buddhists (including for the first time a delegation from China), Muslim delegates, including a representative of the king of Saudi Arabia, and a small group of prominent nonbelievers invited by the Pontifical Council for Culture, including a member of the Austrian Communist Party. They have been invited as part of the “Courtyard of the Gentiles” initiative of Benedict XVI, which is aimed at reaching out to atheists.
Other delegates will represent Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Shintos, Bahais, Confucians and Taoists. The famous Al-Azhar Muslim university in Cairo will not be represented. Relations with the Vatican remain suspended after its leaders claimed Benedict XVI was interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs when he condemned attacks on Christians late last year.
The Pope will travel to the event on the papal train, arriving in Assisi shortly before 10am tomorrow. He will join the rest of the delegates in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels. There, the previous meetings will be recalled, and the theme of the day will be explored in greater depth. The Holy Father and various leaders present will make speeches.
A simple lunch will follow that is intended to express fraternal conviviality and solidarity in the suffering of so many men and women who do not know peace. This will be followed by a period of silence for individual reflection and prayer, and a pilgrimage to the Basilica of St. Francis. The walk to the basilica is intended to symbolize the journey of every human being who assiduously seeks the truth and actively builds justice and peace. It will take place in silence, leaving room for personal meditation and prayer. The day will conclude in the same manner as previous meetings: with a solemn renewal of the joint commitment to peace at St. Francis’ basilica.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome Correspondent.