In Assisi, “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace”

A collection of articles concerning the pope’s inter-religious summit in Assisi.

On 27 October 1986, Pope John Paul II organized a summit of various religious leaders from around the world in Assisi, Italy. This World Day of Prayer for Peace was noteworthy for both its message – that all peoples yearn for world peace and must work to achieve it through mutual understanding – and its historical nature as a large-scale, pluralistic religious conference.

This year, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s Day of Prayer, Pope Benedict XVI has made another pilgrimage to Assisi. Once again, the pope has called spiritual leaders of the world to speak and to listen, to join in a larger, ongoing dialogue of cooperation and to recapture both the passion for peace and the diversity underpinning the event a quarter-century ago.

It is all the more clear that Pope Benedict desired a synergy between the two events because they share another trait: their status as “historical” meetings. Indeed, this year’s pilgrimage is the first to extend its pluralistic mission to include even nonbelievers. For Catholic News Service, John Thavis reports:

[Julia] Kristeva, a Bulgarian-born philosopher and psychoanalyst, was one of four nonbelievers the pope invited to the Assisi interfaith meeting for peace. Their presence was an innovation that sparked questions and even criticism in some conservative quarters.

The program gave Kristeva and the pope the same podium and a global audience, and both spoke in bridge-building language. The pope said he invited the nonbelievers because he was convinced they were seekers who, by looking for truth, in effect are looking for God.

Kristeva said the world today needs to create forms of cooperation between Christian humanism and the humanism of the Enlightenment — a risky path but one worth taking, she said. …

Certainly, the pope and Kristeva offered quite different perspectives. For the pope, God is the key to every possible human solution to problems of peace and injustice. Kristeva never mentioned God and described the task of renewing culture solely in terms of human efforts.

But they both appeared to agree that they need to talk to each other.

Regarding the decision to include non-religious perspectives, the pope maintains that “All their struggling and questioning is, in part, an appeal to believers to purify their faith so that God, the true God, becomes accessible.” CNS’s Cindy Wooden continues:

[Pope Benedict] said, many nonbelievers also are “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace.”

“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 practiced. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God,” he said.

“They 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 pope said.

John Thavis extends further analysis of the issues informing the various talks:

A common thread ran through many of the speeches and invocations of this year’s “prayer for peace” encounter in Assisi: the uneasy sense that the world is facing not merely conflicts and wars, but a much broader crisis that affects social and cultural life in every country.

Environmental damage, the rich-poor divide, erosion of cultural traditions, terrorism and new threats to society’s weakest members were cited as increasingly worrisome developments by speakers at the interfaith gathering in the Italian pilgrimage town Oct. 27. …

The pope said [the world’s] discord has taken on “new and frightening guises,” and he singled out two forms: terrorism, including acts of violence that are religiously motivated; and the spiritual erosion that has occurred in highly secularized societies.

“The worship of Mammon, possessions and power is proving to be a counter-religion, in which it is no longer man who counts but only personal advantage,” he said. He cited the illegal drug trade and drug dependency to show how desire for happiness today can degenerate into “an unbridled, inhuman craving.” …

[A]t Assisi 2011, it seemed clearer than ever that building world peace will require much more than eliminating armed conflict.

This morning, the pope noted to delegates that the event was “a vivid expression of the fact that every day, throughout the world, people of different religious traditions live and work together in harmony.”

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