Thursday, January 24
The bells start ringing at 7 a.m. The friars have already celebrated
Morning Prayer and people are already in the Basilica visiting the
Portiuncula and praying. The main events will take place in the
city above and in the piazza of the Basilica of St. Francis, but
anywhere dear to the poverello is a place where people want to pray
There is a growing sense of responsibility: this peace is ours and
we must make it work. Even though there is a wide representation
among the invited religious leaders, the congregation will not be
as diverse. The people of Assisi have understood that they live
in solidarity with the world and with all those who come to experience
Francis and Clare.
At 8:30 a.m. everyone is watching television as the papal train
leaves the Vatican, just as it did 40 years ago when it carried
Blessed John XXIII as a pilgrim to Assisi and Loreto. It is obvious
that John Paul II wants to make this into a pilgrimage, and his
traveling companions are diverse religious leaders from all over
the world. The pageantry of all the different religious and cultural
garb is already brilliant, but it is the diversity in creeds joined
together in this two-hour train ride to the City of Peace that truly
boggles the mind.
It is just after Christmas, so it is hard not to miss the connection
between the train and a caravan of wise leaders who come to give
their gifts and receive Peace. As the train approaches Santa Maria
degli Angeli, the train's long clear whistles seem to be announcing:
Be not afraid; I bring you great tidings of great joy; glory to
God in the highest and peace to all of good will.
The colors are bright as many different leaders of the world's religions
disembark. Since this is an official visit, many civic leaders,
including the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, are present
to greet the Holy Father. Then there is the motorcade up to St.
A tent constructed in the piazza accommodates over 2,500 people.
It is here that the first official moment of "Together for
Peace" takes place. The Pope embraces representatives of the
more than 30 groups participating.
Next the testimonies begin, speaking about peace. Different Christian
leaders speak, Jewish and Muslim leaders speak, and the many diverse,
rich and ancient religions of Asia and Africa are represented as
It is obvious that this gathering is not going to end in some perfect
peace. It is not an end point and it is not a beginning either.
It is a signpost in a long road. There is good will and there are
many points on which there is agreement. At the same time, it is
obvious that although many participants might use words such as
"justice," what they understand by such words can be very
In 1986 there was a
similar meeting in Assisi. As a result, other meetings and gatherings
took place. Eventually there was movement in many situations that
seemed beyond resolve. The Prayer in Assisi was seen as being one
of the graces that got things moving.
After the testimonies, different groups moved off to pray in separate
places. The Christians joined together in an ecumenical service
in the Basilica of St. Francis. Others were given space for prayer
within the Sacro Convento, inside rooms bordering on the crypt of
the tomb of St. Francis. Even the assignation of prayer spaces is
done with the hopes that the Spirit of Assisi will be available
to all who come to pray for peace. We are separate in our beliefs
and expressions of prayer but joined together in our desire for
Jimmy Zammit, O.F.M., a Franciscan friar from the Malta province,
has been living and working in Rome since 1997 as the general treasurer
of the Order of Friars Minor.