To understand how the interfaith gathering due to take place on 27 October will unfold, one should read what the current Pope wrote nine years ago, when as Cardinal he accompanied Wojtyla
When, in October 1986 John Paul II convened an interreligious meeting in Assisi, the world was still divided into blocks and ran a real danger of a terrible and total war. There were, at that first meeting, excesses and levity that were attributable less than perfect organization, and certainly not to the Pope. Yet Karol Wojtyla was clear: “Here I humbly repeat my conviction: peace bears the name of Jesus Christ.”
In January 2002, a few months after the September 11 terrorist attacks that, in such a violent and unexpected way, brought onto the world scene the theme of religious exploitation to justify the hatred, the killing of the innocent, the massacres, the aging and ill John Paul II wanted to repeat the gesture of the city of Saint Francis. In that second edition much more attention was paid, so that there were no excuses for criticism from traditionalists on the risk of “syncretism”. Wojtyla asked to concentrate on “the mystery of the Cross,” on the one “who has become our peace.” He reiterated that with dialogue we should not in any way “indulge in relativism or syncretism,” but rather “become more aware of our duty to bear witness and make proclamation.”
For that second meeting in Assisi, John Paul II wanted to reach the city of St. Francis, along with leaders of other religions, on board a train that departed from Vatican City. The globetrotting Pope, who during his pontificate had travelled far and wide throughout the world, for a distance of more than three times the distance between the earth and the moon, had chosen the train as the means of transport, like his predecessor Pope John XXIII had done, when on October 4, 1962, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, he went to Assisi and Loreto.
In January 2002, up to the last minute,the name of Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was not included among the companions of the Polish Pope. It was no secret that the Cardinal, Wojtyla’s faithful collaborator, had expressed reservations about the conduct of Assisi 1986. It was John Paul II’s secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, who invited Ratzinger upon request of the Pope, asking him to attend the second meeting for inter-religious peace. The prefect obeyed. And upon his return from Assisi, struck by the positive experience, he wanted to entrust to the monthly 30Days a sort of diary of the trip, explaining the meaning. Rereading it, one finds the setting in which today that Cardinal, now Pope, had wanted to celebrate a new interfaith gathering. A meeting which, it is worth remembering, Benedict XVI personally wanted to convene, being firmly convinced of its goodness and usefulness.
“It was not – Ratzinger said nine years ago, with his first comments on the pilgrimage in January 2002 – a self-representation of religions that would be interchangeable. It was not to assertequality of religions, that does not exist. Assisi was rather an expression of a journey, a search, a pilgrimage for peacewhich can be called so only if united in justice.” “With their witness for peace, with their commitment to peace with justice – continued the Cardinal – the representatives of the religions have undertaken, within the limits of their capabilities, a journey that must be for all a path of purification.”
“Pilgrimage” and “journey” that must be “purification” for all. These are the elements that are found in the program of Assisi III, as explained by Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, and Bishop Mario Toso, respectively the president and secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace: “Emphasis will be placed on pilgrimage and not on prayer”, we tried “to put the emphasis on practical things such as walking together for justice and peace.”
There will be public moments of prayer, although in separate locations, as in 1986. There will only be space for personal prayer. In any case, it is worth remembering that Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book Fede Verità e Tolleranza, said that while there was the “undeniable danger” of misunderstanding, “it would be equally wrong to reject multi-religious prayer entirely and unconditionally,” which must be tied to certain conditions and must remain a “sign in extraordinary situations, in which, so to speak, a common cry of anguish stands out that should shake the hearts of men and at the same time shake the heart of God.”