Praying for Peace in Assisi

January 23-24, 2002

Assisi Diary: Praying for Peace With the World's Religions

by Jimmy Zammit, O.F.M.

Photographs by Fr. Gabriel Garcia G.

Wednesday, January 23

Arriving in Assisi as the day dies away, one can already feel the excitement around the Portiuncula, as friars and lay people are busy with preparations for the day of Prayer for Peace. A cool dampness covers Assisi and after the evening meal it is time to prepare for the vigil prayer: Justice and peace embrace.

There are candles, incense, vestments, processions, music, readings and exhortations, but the celebration does not fit into stereotypical categories. There is a wonderful use of symbolism: olive branch sprigs with Francis' blessing attached, "May the Lord give you Peace." They are prepared by the cloistered Clares at the Protomonastery—contemplatives present through a sharing of their gift of the palm leaves and their prayer. A young refugee from Kosovo tells of meeting love in others after losing everything and of how that love enabled him to let go of hatred and reach out in love. A great flame is lit outside the church and candles are then lit from the bonfire to bring the light of hope into darkness.

The Basilica is filled with young and old, religious and lay: people from every walk and stage of life. The pope and the representatives of world religions are not here yet. It is the people and their bishop gathered together to pray for peace. At 9 p.m. the church is full, and a train carrying eight hundred members of a Catholic movement is due in at 11 p.m. They plan to spend the night in prayer, then walk uphill to San Rufino Church at 4 a.m.

Yes, tomorrow is going to be a wonderful day!


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 for peace.

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. Francis Basilica.

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 well.

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 different.

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 peace.

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.


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