Praying for Peace in Assisi

October 1986

The Day Assisi Became the
'Peace Capital' of the World

by Antonio M. Rosales, O.F.M.

St. Anthony Messenger
January 1987

Morning broke that special day, October 27, 1986, with just a faint sign of Brother Sun behind the gray clouds. It had rained day before, and I remember during night waking up and hearing the rain hitting the terrace.

The threat of rain was constant throughout the day and people carried umbrellas like parts of their anatomy. The enthusiasm and expectation in the air, however, was so thick that it would have taken a major storm to dampen that spirit. Rather than be embarrassed, Mother Nature decided to hold back the rain, or so it seemed.

The day had a Mardi Gras atmosphere about it-but without the gaudy costumes, elaborate floats, confetti and noise. There were costumes, but they were of a different kind, costumes associated with religion, with people of prayer: the Pope's white; the Christian ecclesiastics' red, purple, black and brown; the Hindus' saffron yellow and many shades of it; the Buddhists' white with designs; the American Indians' colorful costumes and feathered headdress; the Africans' robes; and so on. Instead of riding on floats, the pilgrims walked, a few on bare feet. Instead of confetti, there were olive branches and doves. Instead of noises of carousing and merrymaking, there were cadences of prayer, sacred song and community supplications.

It seemed as if everyone had put on his or her best face. In spite of the hassles and inconvenience of the barricades and security fences, there were smiles everywhere. Even the normally stern-faced custodians of law and order seemed relaxed and ready to break into a smile at the least provocation. Still, I suspect that if St. Francis had his way, he would have preferred less visibility on the part of uniformed policemen and military personnel. Some observers considered it a countersign that so many law enforcers were present at a peace meeting, to guard men and women of prayer, who had come together precisely to give witness to nonviolence, to universal brotherhood and sisterhood.

The Call

Assisi had become once again the city of the world, the city where people from near and far discover brothers and sisters in each other, regardless of race or creed. And indeed on that day people from all over the world gathered in the spirit of harmony and peace for which Francis of Assisi has been famous for centuries.

The Holy Father had called this historic meeting, and many wanted to be a part of history this day. Unlike other such meetings, this one was called so participants could not talk about peace but pray for it. The Holy Father wanted to prove that peace is the desire of every man and woman of whatever faith; that peace is a gift of God even though its realization depends at the same time on humanity's generous and faithful response to that gift; that peace, ultimately, is possible. On October 4, the feast of St. Francis, the Holy Father had strongly suggested a world truce on October 27. He asked that guns be silent for the day and conflicts suspended. A good number of countries heeded his call: chiefs of state issued messages and declarations in favor of peace, urging their constituents to reflect on peace; prayer raffles and meetings for peace were held in many countries.

The Pope chose Assisi as the gathering place, because the spirit of Brother Francis has transformed it into the city of universal brotherhood and sisterhood. The figure of Francis continues to inspire, challenge and be relevant. In Assisi the Pope was a brother among brothers and sisters, a pilgrim among pilgrims, a believer among believers.

Not everyone, of course, welcomed the Pope's initiative, not even within the Catholic community. Some. Catholic, ultra-conservative extremists, who reject Vatican II along with its decrees and teachings, were giving out printed sheets, which denounced the Pope as "heretic and apostate" for going against the soundest traditions of the Catholic faith and fraternizing excessively with other religions. Their message was aptly depicted in two cartoons: one showing the Pope telling Jesus Christ that he was not welcome at the prayer meeting in Assisi, and the other showing Jesus Christ at the gate of heaven telling the Pope that he was not welcome there. At the bottom of the cartoon was "the other place" where a grinning Satan says the Pope was welcome there. Not many paid attention to these handouts, most of which were crumpled and thrown away, or else tucked away by souvenir hunters with a taste for oddities.

The Pilgrimage

That day Assisi was one big house of prayer and the world's "peace capital." The gathering points assigned to the different faiths and religious groups became places of pilgrimage for those who flocked to the city that day. Though there were curiosity-seekers, skeptics and even cynics among the crowds, the majority went from group to group, eager to see, learn and experience how that group related to the Divine, or what they meant by prayer, fraternity, love and peace.

It must have been difficult for some groups to concentrate on their prayers and meditations, as hordes of television reporters invaded their areas with microphones, cameras and blinding floodlights, not to mention other media people armed with tape recorders and notebooks. Some less-known religious groups, at least less-known to the West, were made to feel at times like they were rare specimens from some unknown world. One could read in their eyes that they felt exploited, hurt or helpless. Granted the media has needs and desires, I wish they had shown a little more consideration and respect toward these groups during the prayer sessions at least. Prayer, after all, is something quite personal. Yet in spite of the concessions many religious groups had to make to accommodate the god of the mass media, they still maintained an atmosphere of prayer and recollection.

Aside from the "official" places where the different faiths gathered, there were other nonofficial places where Catholics for the most part gathered to pray for the cause of peace. For example, in the Blessed Sacrament chapels of the Portiuncula and St. Clares, many engaged in silent prayer of adoration. At the Church of the Minerva others gathered for community prayer; meditation and sharing. In the crypt of the Cathedral of San Rufino still others were engaged in traditional devotions, while in the main church above the Christian groups were praying.

What was particularly evident that day was the presence of the youth. Many came as tourists or observers, but more came to participate, to immerse themselves in the event happening in their midst. They sang, they danced, exuding the carefreeness typical of their age. But they contributed more than their exuberance. The group which filled the Church of the Minerva, located at the main square of Assisi, consisted of young people from the Community of Sant' Egidio, based in Rome, founded to minister to the elderly and marginated in the old quarters of the city. They spent nearly two full days in prayer there. The group at the crypt of San Rufino were all young people, seemingly from various countries, who prayed devoutly, listened intently, and contributed their intentions and aspirations to the prayers of the community. They lined the route of the pilgrims. They huddled in small groups or squatted by the brick walls with eyes closed, engrossed in meditation. They filled the upper and lower squares of the Basilica of St. Francis. Seeing their enthusiasm, their joviality, their devotion, their faith, one could only be edified.

The Universal Longing

People did not only pray. Many also fasted, skipping lunch that day, for the sake of peace. While the whole morning was spent with each religious group praying on its own with its adherents, the afternoon was for the whole assembly to pray together, giving witness to the more universal thirst for peace shared by all humanity.

From the individual centers of prayer, the groups walked to the lower square of the Basilica of St. Francis. The austerity of the place and the stark earthy colors of the masonry of the church in the background contrasted with the subdued festivity of the prayer area. Flowers and potted plants decked the square-shaped platform, where seats had been arranged at its edges.

As the different religious leaders and groups entered the quadrangle, they were met with applause from the crowd, consisting of special guests, civil authorities, members of the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, media people, security personnel, pilgrims. The prayers of each faith came out loud and clear, distinct and articulate. Practically each one made use of its own sacred writings to express the desire and longing for peace and the commitment to it.

The languages used were varied. The sounds and inflections of praying voices were conveyed to the crowd by microphones and transmitted worldwide by satellite. I felt that God, of course, did not need this equipment. God saw the intentions and read the aspirations of the participants seeking peace, and their prayers will be granted in God's own good time. The Holy Father rounded up all the supplications with the prayer Jesus taught us: the Our Father.

People applauded after each religious group recited its prayer. To some, this applause seemed inappropriate, at least insofar as it could give the impression that people were responding to a show or popular program, rather than to a serious prayer event. But perhaps members of the audience wanted to express their assent to the ideas expressed in the prayers.

The Olive Branch

The distribution of olive branches by young people from different faiths was meaningful. Each branch had a slip of paper stapled to it with the words "ASSISI-PAX ET BONLIM" ("Assisi-Peace and Good," Pax Ct Bonum being the traditional Franciscan greeting). It was a moving experience to have the group of young people later challenge the establishment, the adult world, with a series of questions about their common commitment to peace-with each question answered by raising the olive branch as an affirmation.

While the congregation received only little branches, the leaders on the stage each received a potted olive plant measuring about a foot high. This too was a beautiful symbol. Perhaps it was meant to convey the leaders' responsibility to encourage peace to take root, grow and bear fruit. Unfortunately, the symbolism did not seem to have been fully understood by all, as a number of the potted plants were left behind by the main participants after the function. They were immediately retrieved, however, by avid souvenir "hunters" who swarmed onto the stage and quickly denuded it of its plants, flowers and decorations.

All through the afternoon the skies were gray and clouded. A drop of rain occasionally escaped through the clouds. Some of the congregation opened umbrellas. But when the choir intoned the Magnificat, Mary's hymn of thanksgiving, the clouds started to disperse, and for a few minutes after the hymn ended, the sun came out in all its splendor, flooding the place in an ocean of light and warmth. (Interestingly, soon after the function ended, rain poured down. The symbolism seemed clear to me: If peace is an olive plant, it needs the sun and the rain of human care and support to grow.) After the Pope's concluding remarks and acknowledgments, a sign of peace was exchanged among the participants, and the Holy Father invited them to a fraternal meal at the refectory of the Conventual Franciscans.

The Franciscan Commitment

The Franciscans stood out prominently that day. After all, Assisi is their city. They were everywhere: clad in different shades of brown, gray and sheer black; old, middle-aged and young; in all sizes, all manifesting a certain youthful enthusiasm and vigor as they shuffled around. They ushered pilgrims, led prayers, intoned hymns, distributed prayer booklets, showed people where to go, gave instructions, made announcements or translations over the public-address system for the assembly, drove dignitaries around, served at table, operated telecameras, snapped pictures, gave interviews.

As a Franciscan, I could not help seeing this as the call for all who would follow Francis' spirit today, both inside and outside the Order. All are called to redouble our overall commitment to peace and justice, nonviolence and the promotion of human development. This can no longer be just an optional choice. It strikes me that the Franciscan movement today has much potential to influence the world for good by being in the forefront of peace efforts and the theologv of liberation, by commitment to the evangelization of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and by serving the poorest of the poor, such as AIDS victims and-others on the margins of society.

To be a follower of Francis is not simply an honor. It is also a risk and responsibility. To be part of the Franciscan spirit and enterprise today means more than serving the local community or Church. It means serving the whole family of humanity. In Assisi last October, Francis was telling all his followers, through the inspiration of the Holy Father and the leaders of world faiths, that they are to be brothers and sisters of the universe and servants of universal peace.

In short, we are to embody the prayer attributed to St. Francis, with which the Holy Father ended his concluding allocution, and become "an instrument of peace" - making sure that those olive plants stay alive and even prosper.

Antonio M. Rosales, O.F.M., a Franciscan friar from the Philippine province, is living and working in Rome as the ecclesiastical assistant and attaché at the Embassy of the Philippines to the Holy See. Father Antonio attended the October 27, 1986 event at Assisi as the representative of the ambassador.


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