Interreligious Encounter in Assisi
14 Oct 2011 by John Thavis
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Slowly and carefully,
the Vatican is setting the stage for the third edition of the interreligious prayer for peace encounter in the Italian pilgrimage town of Assisi.
The Oct. 27 event marks the 25th anniversary of
the first such gathering. As in 1986, it is expected to draw representatives from many Christian denominations and
more than a dozen other faiths.
In convening the prayer summit, Pope Benedict
XVI is clearly reaffirming the ecumenical and
interreligious outreach of his predecessor, Blessed John
Paul II. But the German pope has also marked out his own
course, with modifications and additions that, in the
Vaticans view, leave the event less open to
For one thing, the participants will not pray
together — at least, not in a formal fashion. They will gather at the end of the day for a moment of silence and testimonials to peace.
Although the border between prayer and reflection
may be ambiguous in such encounters, it appears that
Assisi 2011 will not repeat the formula of 1986, when
representatives of each major religion offered a prayer at a final joint service.
Just as 25 years ago, participants will break off
during the day for separate prayer services. But the
difference is that this time around the prayers will be
private moments in a cloistered monastery, not public
performances throughout the town of Assisi.
In 1986, what generated the most interest among
the media troops who went to Assisi were these very
colorful and distinct forms of prayer, many of which took
place inside Catholic places of worship.
Buddhist monks chanted to the sound of a bronze
gong. An animist from Ghana started a fire in a cup. A
tribal chief from Togo invited spirits to enter a bowl of
water. A Native American blessed people on the head with eagle feathers.
For a few hours, Assisi seemed like a spiritual
kaleidoscope, with clouds of smoke, sheep-hair amulets,
tambourines and multi-colored robes. And it left some
critics with the impression that Christian and non-
Christian elements were being mixed together
The program for this years encounter appears
designed to ensure that the private prayers will not have a
The third and perhaps most striking element of
Pope Benedicts Assisi gathering is that the Vatican has
invited five prominent nonbelievers to participate. The
group includes the well-known British philosopher A.C.
Grayling, who has argued that religion has had a
disproportionately large influence in society.
The Vatican made a point of inviting them
because, although nonbelievers, they are seen as actively
engaged in a debate over ethics, metaphysics and truth.
That reflects the aim of the Vaticans new Courtyard of the Gentiles project, which seeks to promote discussions between Christians and nonbelievers around the world.
Tags: Pope Benedict XVI Vatican Interreligious Christian-Muslim relations Assisi