When Pope Francis travels to Assisi next Tuesday to take part in a gathering of religious leaders to pray for peace, there will likely be two different reactions in various quarters, each of which risks missing the point.
For those unfamiliar with recent papal history, the gesture may well
be seen as another maverick initiative by a break-the-mold pontiff, one
already known for his unique style of outreach to constituencies long
distant from the Catholic Church.
Those who do know the story of what happened under St. John Paul II
and Benedict XVI, on the other hand, may be tempted to see the Sept. 20
event as ho-hum.
After all, this gathering marks the 30th
anniversary of John Paul’s historic 1986 inter-faith summit in Assisi,
an initiative he repeated in 1993 and 2002, and one that Benedict also
presided over in 2011.
In between, the Community of Sant’Egidio, a movement in Catholicism
devoted to conflict resolution, ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue, has
organized inter-faith assemblies “in the spirit of Assisi” every year,
and is the prime mover behind next Tuesday’s event.
In other words, one could say that these gatherings by now have become routine.
As is often the case with quick takes, both of those reactions capture something real.
Certainly, Pope Francis brings his own unique style to encounters
with leaders of other religions. It’s less focused on healing the wounds
of the past, as with John Paul, or exploring theological convergences
and differences, as with Benedict, and more on practical action in the
here-and-now on shared humanitarian and social objectives.
Equally certainly, it’s true that inter-faith outreach has now become
part of the job description for any pope, reflecting the teaching of
the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the precedent set by John Paul
However, both the “Francis the maverick” and the “business as usual”
takes ignore the most important point of all, which is this: What’s set
to unfold in Assisi on Sept. 20 is another chapter in an ongoing
revolution, both in the way Catholicism engages the world and in the
role of the papacy.
Thirty years after the fact, it’s easy to forget just how innovative,
and controversial, that 1986 inter-faith gathering under John Paul II
The setting in Assisi rather than Rome was deliberate.
Rome is the
pope’s town, while Assisi belongs to St. Francis, a universally admired
figure for his commitment to peace, dialogue and simplicity. It was a
way of leveling the playing field, making it clear the pope came as a
brother to other religions and not a commander-in-chief.
The group that day included rabbis wearing yarmulkes and Sikhs in
turbans, Muslims praying on thick carpets and a Zoroastrian kindling a
sacred fire. Robert Runcie, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury,
exchanged pleasantries with the Dalai Lama. Orthodox bishops chatted
with Alan Boesak, the South African anti-apartheid activist and
president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
After the different traditions finished their prayers, the spiritual
leaders gathered at a Franciscan monastery for a meal of bread, pizza,
vegetables, Coke, and water. (In a rare concession for Italians, no wine
was served, so as not to offend believers for whom alcohol is
Blowback was immediate, and fierce. Some of it was fueled by urban
legends, such as a rumor of animal sacrifice being carried out on the
altar of a Catholic church, but much of the criticism was based on what
Traditionalist followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre distributed
flyers denouncing John Paul as an apostate for allegedly putting
Catholicism on the same level as other religions.
Two years later, when
Lefebvre went into schism, he said he was acting to protect Catholicism
from the “spirit of Vatican II and the spirit of Assisi.”
U.S. Protestant Carl McIntire amplified Lefebvre by calling the Assisi
gathering the “greatest single abomination in church history.”
Concerns were even voiced from within the pope’s own fold.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the time the Vatican’s doctrinal
czar, said in a 2003 book that it is “indisputable that the Assisi
meetings, especially in 1986, were misinterpreted by many people.”
Despite all that, John Paul repeated the event twice. In 2002,
Ratzinger took part and pronounced himself “very happy” with the result,
and led such a gathering himself as pope.
Thus when Francis goes to Assisi on Tuesday, it confirms that the
Church’s commitment to interfaith dialogue and harmony is irrevocable -
something one could not have taken for granted even fifty years ago.
It also confirms a new role for the papacy, pioneered by John Paul II.
Recall that the 1986 summit in Assisi came while the cold war was
still hot, so the idea of praying for peace wasn’t simply a pious
gesture but one with real-world political significance.
gathering came amid wars in the Balkans, and the 2002 version unfolded
in the aftermath of 9/11.
The idea was to respond to violence with gestures of friendship and
peace, thereby illustrating that religion does not have to be a cause of
conflict, but can also be key to resolving differences and promoting
In effect, it was a way of positioning the pope as the chairman and
convener of religious moderates everywhere, offering a counter-narrative
to perceptions of hostility and violence bred by religious differences.
In 2002, during John Paul’s final Assisi event, Rabbi Israel Singer,
at the time the head of the World Jewish Congress, at one point departed
from his prepared text, turned to the pontiff, and said, “Only you,
John Paul II, could put this together,” and then offered the pontiff a
When Francis heads to Assisi next Tuesday, he’ll thus be confirming
anew a sea change in Catholic attitudes towards other religions, and an
historic addition to the conception of what it means to be pope.
All that, one has to say, isn’t bad for a day’s work.