Father Gabriel E. Garcia
WE HAVE COME to expect surprises from Pope John Paul II. His Sunday Angelus address on November 18, 2001, contained two. After speaking about the world's turbulent situation, he asked Catholics to fast and pray on December 14, 2001, the same day that millions of our Muslim brothers and sisters marked the end of Ramadan, a monthlong fast and time for special prayer. He also announced that he was inviting leaders of the world's religions to come to Assisi on January 24, 2002, to pray for world peace.
The pope's intention was very clear. Responding to the events of September 11, he wanted to start a coordinated religious response to violence and terrorism. If religious differences were somehow at the root of plane crashes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, the pope would turn religion to promoting peace.
So Pope John Paul II invited all faith-filled men and women of goodwill to join him in this effort. His call crossed the lines of religious divisions.
John Paul II never does things in half-measures. On December 14, 2001, Roman radio, TV and newspapers highlighted this day of fasting and its purpose. Even many people slow to identify themselves as very "religious" joined in the praying and fastingsome by reduced meals and others, following the Muslim practice during Ramadan, eating and drinking nothing between sunrise and sunset. The fasting was to prepare us for our pilgrimage in faith.
Pilgrimage Is Key
The Holy See's document entitled "Liturgical-Pastoral Guidelines in Preparation for the Assisi Meeting" described the event as a pilgrimage: "...a sign of the demanding journey which each of Christ's followers is called to undertake in order to attain conversion...to recall that we are indeed going toward the Lord 'not by our footsteps but by our love....'"
Catholics and members of many other faith communities began to pray, fast and be reconciled in preparation for this Day of Prayer for Peace.
After St. Anthony Messenger contacted me to write this article, I realized that interfaith prayer services were being scheduled all over the world in connection with this event. All roads were starting to lead to Assisi.
The Night Before
On the eve of the 2002 Assisi Day of Prayer for Peace, Bishop Sergio Goretti of Assisi presided over a prayer vigil in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels, also known as the Portiuncula. This basilica stands about two miles from Assisi, on the plain below the mountainside city. The service's theme was "Justice and Peace Embrace."
The air was damp as we gathered. The workday had ended and only then could many folks begin their travel to Assisi. People looked tired, excited, expectant, optimistic and open to whatever the Spirit had in mind. As one might expect of a service in an Italian basilica, the entrance procession was very solemn: young friars in procession, spotless white vestments, candles, a crucifix, incense and music.
Eventually came the bishop of Assisi, today's successor of Bishop Guido from Francis and Clare's day. He looked out on many enthusiastic, generous, young Christians who consider Assisi their spiritual birthplace. A service that could have been a very formal celebration became welcoming and nurturing.
That night, people came to Assisi by car or train, readying themselves to pray for peace. In this church everyone felt part of a family praying for peace. Those who prepared the event managed to make effective use of symbolism, especially:
olive twigs, tied to the
text of Francis' greeting ("May the Lord give you peace!").
They effectively and subtly linked Assisi's cloistered nuns,
who prepared them, to this prayer vigil.
a bonfire started outside
the basilica, from which candles were lit. The fire ceremony
tied our prayer to the Easter Mystery: light in darkness,
the fire of love and hope for new life.
a young man who spoke
of his experience as a refugee from the Kosovo conflict. He
told about his return to Kosovo and his ability to forgive
and live at peace with those who were once his people's sworn
People kept arriving. The 11 p.m. train brought 800 members of a group to spend the night in prayer at the Portiuncula and then walk uphill at 4 a.m. to continue their prayer within Assisi's walls.
Pilgrims of Peace
On October 4, 1962, Blessed Pope John XXIII had used a train for a pilgrimage from Rome to Assisi and Loreto. Many TV commentators recalled that event as Pope John Paul II ("Papa Wojtyla," as the Italians call him) and his invited guests boarded a train in Vatican City for this crucial pilgrimage of reconciliation and hope. Excitement and joy were in the air. Cameras broadcast scenes of the Holy Father in his car, as well as images of 200 delegates from different religions. The different colored robes reminded us of the richness of many spiritual traditions.
The train equalized many factors that could have otherwise caused divisions. Vatican officials on the train were on the same footing with the leaders of groups representing the world's great religions. For me it was a beautiful thing to realize that no one group or faith monopolized this pilgrimage of peace. This suggested that our life is a train ride to peace and we must all share the seats and resources.
When he arrived in Assisi, as a head of state the Holy Father received an official welcome by the prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi.
Welcome and Testimonies of Peace
At the start of this Day of Prayer outside the Basilica of St. Francis, Pope John Paul II told those assembled that in Assisi "everything speaks of a singular prophet of peace known as Francis. He is loved not only by Christians, but by many other believers and by people who, though far removed from religion, identify with his ideals of justice, reconciliation and peace."
Attending this event were more than 200 spiritual leaders, including 16 from Christian churches and communities, 30 Muslim clerics from 18 nations, 10 rabbis and representatives from Buddhism, Tenrikyo, Shintoism, Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism and traditional African religions.
The prayer day started very formally, with prepared speeches and testimonies. These were diverse calls to peace and invitations to put aside violence and injustice.
Dr. Ali Elsamman read a message of support from Sheikh Mohammed
Tantawi of al-Azhar University (Egypt), a spiritual leader
of the world's Sunni Muslims. That message included this quote
from the Quran: "There is no compulsion in religion. The right
way is distinct from error. Whoever does not believe in idols
but believes in God has laid hold of the firmest handle that
never breaks. God is the one who hears and knows everything"
(Surah 2, The Cow, 256).
Rabbi Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, said that the talk of peace in the name of religion "is based on the reality of all our religious ideals, and it is the ultimate goal to which we all aspire. We must reject the distortion of religious teachings that have been used in the past and not suggest that violence against members of other religions or other religious sects are religious mandated."
As I listened to the different testimonies, I realized that the long dialogue leading to peace requires much understanding and openness. I was really alarmed to hear the different ways some groups spoke about justice. Quite simply, in some cultures justice seems to imply the spilling of blood. Thinking about it, even in our own societies, I realize that genuine justice is often linked with capital punishment. How does one enter into discussion on this subject while keeping an open mind?
Praying Separately But Nearby
When the time to pray about peace actually came, the religious groups split up, allowing for physical separation yet remaining spiritually united. Each group had its own area to pray for peace.
Respect sometimes requires space; one cannot simply gloss over the real differences in people's beliefs. The situation reminded me of our Catholic teaching about not sharing the Eucharist with our separated brethren: Being unable to share should stimulate us to pray and work harder for the day when all of us will be able to gather around one table.
In spite of the different rooms, I almost felt that I could see smoke rising from the roof of St. Francis Basilica as if lifting all these prayers for peace to heaven.
TV coverage did not include the fraternal meal served in the adjacent Franciscan friary to the official participants. Even at the more distant St. Mary of the Angels, the friars' dining room served groups visiting Assisi for this Day of Prayer, which was quite a logistical challenge. How does one kitchen prepare for several groups of observant religious people with varying dietary restrictions, including restrictions on tableware?
Goodwill prevailed and everyone had enough to eat while using that dining space. Sharing this meal became another opportunity for forging new bridges. It certainly gave the hosts a lesson in diversity.
In the gathering's final moment, participants reassembled in the great tent constructed outside the lower Basilica of St. Francis. A 10-point Pledge for Peace (see box below) was proclaimed in German, Punjab, Russian, Serbian, Arabic, Greek, Korean, Farsi, Japanese, Hebrew and English.
As St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Creatures was sung, the pope and leaders of various delegations placed lighted oil lamps on a round table, signs of their commitment to this Peace Pledge. These simple symbols of the capacity for each faith to light up the darkness of our world were beautiful.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, then invited participants to exchange a greeting of peace: "'Glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good.' Let us become instruments of the peace that comes from on high. Let us remember that there is no peace without justice, that there is no justice without forgiveness. Let us seal with a gesture of peace among ourselves the commitment for peace proclaimed in many voices. Let us bring peace to those who are near and far, to all creatures and all creation."
Then participants exchanged a greeting of peace by way of embraces and friendly words. The proclamation of the 10-point Pledge for Peace reminds us that this task remains a shared venture.
The Pilgrimage Continues
Though rain was coming down as people moved toward the train station, no one seemed to mind. They seemed to have an inner sunshine. Though he was obviously tired, Pope John Paul II looked happy. I can imagine that the train ride home was one shared by people who had deepened bonds of openness. When we watched on TV as everyone left the train in Vatican City, participants seemed content and filled with a tangible optimism.
The 1986 Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi produced many effects not immediately apparent. The commitment made by those at last January's day reflects goodwill, an opening in the clouds. Religious leaders who went there to prayand thousands of ordinary people from different faiths who joined them from near and farallowed God's grace to penetrate their lives more deeply. Seeds sown in winter blossom in the spring, feeding the cycle of life.
Pope John Paul II closed this celebration with these words:
"Once again Assisi has come to be the source of renewed hope.
"Let us give thanks to the Lord, the Divine Builder of the house of peace.
"Thank you, all who have taken part in this event in witness, prayer and shared commitment to serve the cause of peace.
"Thank you, all who have made this possible.
"Thank you, men and women of goodwill in every part of the world who are spiritually united with us in this work.
"From God, the source of every good thing, blessing and peace upon those who are peacemakers.
"In his name let us go; let us weave the tapestry of peace with the golden thread of justice, freedom and forgiveness."
Most of the official participants joined the pope the following day in Rome for a vegetarian lunch. Catholic News Service reported that Pope John Paul II told them: "What happened yesterday in Assisi will live long in our hearts and will, we hope, have a profound echo among the peoples of the world. With all our differences, we sit at this table, united in our commitment to the cause of peace. That commitment, born of sincere religious sentiment, is surely what God expects of us. It is what the world seeks in religious men and women."
There is a special feature on the Assisi Day of Prayer
for World Peace at the Vatican's Web site, www.Vatican.va,
as well as through "Assisi Diary" at www.AmericanCatholic.org.