Ahead of Assisi Prayer Gathering 2011 Some Thoughts

 Image source Sean M kelly

In the Italian town of Assisi on October 27th this year the Pope will hold a 'day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world', making a pilgrimage to the home of  St.  Francis and inviting fellow Christians from different denominations, representatives of the world's religious traditions and, in some sense, all men and women of good will, to join him.

This Press release from The Vatican says :

"The  Day will take as its theme: 'Pilgrims of truth, Pilgrims of  peace'.  Every human being is ultimately a pilgrim in search of truth and goodness. Believers too are constantly journeying towards God:  hence the possibility, indeed the necessity, of speaking and entering  into dialogue with everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, without  sacrificing one's own identity or indulging in forms of syncretism."

"St. Francis of Assisi appeals to believers and  nonbelievers alike  because they long for a world where people see each other as brothers  and sisters and where they recognize and respect creation as a gift to all, said the superior of the Franciscan convent  in Assisi. 

Father Giuseppe Piemontese, was one of eight religious leaders who  spoke about "The Spirit of Assisi" during an interreligious meeting  Sept. 11-13 in Munich.
sponsored by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Rome-based lay movement.

Father Piemontese said the encounter will underline how important  Blessed John Paul's gathering 25 years ago was for promoting  dialogue and  collaboration among religions, but it also will be a  "reminder of what  still remains to be done" to ensure true  collaboration, respect and mutual support among peoples.

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Holding the gathering in Assisi makes sense to people because St.  Francis  "incarnated those high aspects of humanity, simplicity,  humility" that enable people to recognize each other as brothers and  sisters and to  see all of creation as the work of the same hands that  made them, he  said.

Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of  Aleppo, Syria,  said marking the anniversary of the 1986 Assisi meeting  "challenges us  to reflect on these last 25 years. They were brimming  with fruitful  experiences" and helped religious leaders "strengthen  their faith and  enrich their enthusiasm and enhance their collective  vision."

The Assisi gatherings, he said, are a reminder that "supplication to the creator" is something that unites all faiths.

"We  are all exhausted by the needless and endless wars around us. If the aim of our prayers is peace, then it is the loftiest of goals that we are aiming for," he said.

Oded Wiener, director general of the  Chief Rabbinate of Israel, told those gathered in Munich, "The darkness  and violence cannot be chased away with sticks (and) certainly not  with knives and guns," but only with "the light of faith and the light  of positive action on the part of  religious leaders."

"This is, in fact, the spirit of Assisi," he said.

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"Religious  leaders and their views are of unique importance and strongly influence the interreligious mosaic," he said. "At many events, we have found that where politicians and statesmen have failed, religious leaders have succeeded in inflaming or calming down various groups."

Gijun  Sugitani, a leader of Japan's Tendai Buddhist movement, said that   after the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended -- events that  occurred after the first Assisi meeting -- "people expected the swift  arrival of world peace."

Instead, he said, there have been new conflicts based on ethnicity, ideology and rage.

Basilica of St. Francis of AssissiImage via Wikipedia

Returning  to Assisi in October is important, he said, because "we have a   responsibility to spread the spirit of Assisi that transcends  differences between the ethnicities and religions and unites us all."

Mohammed Amine Smaili, a Moroccan professor of Muslim dogma and  comparative  religion, told the gathering that the 1986 Assisi meeting "marked a decisive and memorable about-face in our history" because the  world's religions established a consensus that dialogue is the only way  that  humanity can understand itself.

He said the democratic reform  movements sweeping across North Africa and  the Middle East also have  reflected the spirit of Assisi as they bring  people of different  religions together to promote greater freedoms and  human rights.

Religious leaders, he said, "must speak of the holiness of peace and the curse of disrespect and hatred."

Further opinions and discussion here  and here 

From The Vatican Press Office again :

"To  the extent that the pilgrimage of truth is authentically lived, it opens  the path to dialogue with the other, it excludes no-one and it commits  everyone to be a builder of fraternity and peace. 

These are the elements  that the Holy Father wishes to place at the centre of reflection.

"For  this reason, as well as representatives of Christian communities and of  the principal religious traditions, some figures from the world of  culture and science will be invited to share the journey - people who,  while not professing to be religious, regard themselves as seekers of  the truth and are conscious of a shared responsibility for the cause of  justice and peace in this world of ours.

Particular Churches and communities throughout the world are invited to  organise similar times of prayer".

Unsurprisingly and sadly, in my opinion, there are some in the Catholic church that see this attempt to gather together as an abomination. 

This link gives an example of their arguments and their way of thinking which I do NOT share but include here so that people can see what controversies may arise next month.

To my way of thinking this viewpoint betrays a type of faith that is mired in infantile insecurity which can so easily morph into hatred of others.

What I DO relate more to is explained by Fr Ron Rolheiser in this article ( see extract below), on a Cosmic Christ and another article here called Facing Otherness and Difference which tells us that welcoming what’s other and different is, in fact, a key biblical challenge. 

We have a great tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the  foreigner, the unexpected.

For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers.

A Cosmic Christ

"The mystery of Christ is wider, deeper, and more encompassing than  what can be seen simply within the visible life of Jesus and the visible history of the Christian churches. Granted, what we see visibly in the  life of Jesus and the history of the Christian churches is something very precious and very privileged. 

The Christian churches are (like Mary, the Mother of Jesus) the place where God visibly, concretely,  tangibly, and historically enters this world. But, as scripture and  Christian theology affirm, the mystery of Christ is more encompassing  than what we can see visibly and historically. 

It also includes what the Epistle to the Colossians teaches, namely, that physical creation  itself was somehow created through Christ, that Christ is what holds it  together, and that Christ is what gives it an eternal future. The  mystery of Christ is not just about saving us, the people on this  planet, it is also about saving the planet itself.

Incorporating this into our understanding has huge consequences both  in how we understand our planet, earth, and how we understand other  religions:

If all things were created through Christ and for Christ, then our  planet, earth, and all of physical creation have value in themselves and  not just in relation to us. The earth too is God's child, not  self-conscious as we are, but with its own proper rights and right to  respect. 

Simply put, the earth is not just a stage for us to play on. It  too is part of the mystery of Christ and the mystery of salvation. We  must respect it for its own sake, and not just because our health  depends upon its health. 

The deep roots for any eco-theology lie deeper  than in the practical concern for a continued supply of healthy air,  water, and food. Nature too is inside the mystery of Christ.

 Image source from Why So Many Religions if God Is One from here.

There are huge implications from this for how we view other  religions. As Christians we must take seriously Jesus' teaching that  Christ is the (only) way to salvation and that nobody goes to the Father  except through Christ.

So where does that leave non-Christians and  other persons of sincere heart, given that at any given time two-thirds  of the world is not relating to the historical Jesus or the Christian  churches?

Unless we understand the mystery of Christ as deeper and wider than  what we can see visibly and historically, this quandary will invariably  lead us to either abandon Jesus' teaching about being normative or lead  us into an exclusivity that goes against God's universal will for  salvation. 

If, by the mystery of Christ, we mean only the visible Jesus  and the visible church, then we are caught in a dilemma with no answer. 

If, however, by the mystery of Christ, we also mean the mystery of God  becoming incarnate inside of physical creation, beginning already in the  original creation, continuing there as the soul that binds the whole of  physical creation together, and being there as both the energy that  lures creation towards its Creator and the consummation of that  creation, then all things have to do with Christ, whether they realize  it or not, and all authentic worship leads to the Father, whether we can  see this or not.

In the words of Kenneth Cragg: It takes a whole world to understand a whole Christ."

Lastly I am thinking of Thomas Merton, who travelled to Asia to connect his own Catholic  practices with Buddhist monks. 

He died in that journey in 1968 in a  tragic mishap with some electrical wiring in his hotel room in Bangkok.

  Here are Merton’s lines from his now-famous talk that he prepared  for monks in Asia: 

“The deepest level of communication is not  communication, but communion. 

It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it  is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept.

Not that we discover a new  unity. 

We discover an older unity. My dear brothers, we are already one. 

But we imagine that we are not. 

And what we have to recover is our  original unity.

What we have to be is what we are.”

The lives of St Francis and Thomas Merton were embedded in the lavishness and generosity of God -- they were aware that Christ threw the seed in  every direction.

The God that I believe in is so rich in  love  and mercy that He can afford to be wasteful, over-generous, and  non-discriminating beyond my wildest imagination.

Jesus invites us to trust God always.

That's surely that's what the invitation to Assisi is about: - to have a sense of God's abundance so as to risk always a bigger heart and generosity beyond the petty and instinctual fear that would have us believe that, because truth is scarce, we need to be more calculating and cynical about sharing the love that flows from it.

We must must fully be ourselves and allow God and The Holy Spirit do the rest. 

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