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Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace

ATTRACTED BY the peacemaking St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Benedict XVI, 300 representatives of Christianity and other world religions and four philosophers who identify themselves as nonbelievers gathered in Assisi on Oct. 27. This was the 25th anniversary of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s historic gathering to commit religious leaders to work for world peace. The day was organized by the pontifical councils for justice and peace, culture, interreligious dialogue and the promotion of Christian unity.

Official participants went by train with the pope to Santa Maria degli Angeli, the Assisi suburb named for the nearby small chapel that St. Francis rebuilt in 1206. A video of the 1986 ecumenical and interfaith event was shown. After representatives of the Anglicans, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, World Council of Churches, Grand Rabbinate of Israel, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists gave testimonies for peace, professor Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-born humanist, philosopher and psychoanalyst, spoke.

Writing for Catholic News Service, John Thavis reported Kristeva’s call to create forms of cooperation between Christian humanism and the humanism of the Enlightenment, a risky path but one worth taking. She called Pope John Paul II “an apostle of human rights.”

Pope Benedict XVI then observed that the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was a victory of freedom, “which was also, above all, a victory of peace.” Noting that some people have used freedom for violence, the pope admitted “with great shame” that some Christians have tried to promote religion violently, contradicting religion’s true purpose. He said that gross violations of human rights have occurred when God’s role in human development has been denied.

Following a frugal meal in the adjoining St. Mary of the Angels Friary, official participants went to rooms in a nearby guesthouse for reflection and personal prayer.

A Renewed Commitment to Peace

At 4 p.m., participants arrived outside the Lower Basilica of St. Francis. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople began the reading in various languages of a 10-point commitment to peace, a text first used at Assisi’s January 2002 gathering, four months after the 9/11 attacks. On the platform, the pope sat between Patriarch Bartholomew and Rabbi David Rosen.

After officials from some of the various religions read from the peace pledge, professor Guillermo Hurtado from Mexico spoke. Representing nonbelievers, he affirmed, “We, humanists in dialogue with believers, commit ourselves together with all men and women of good will to building a new world in which respect for the dignity of each and every person … is the foundation for life in society.”

Pope Benedict XVI thanked all those who made the day possible and noted that this event “is an image of how the spiritual dimension is a key element in the building of peace.” He said that all peoples are involved in a common human journey.

“We will continue to meet,” he said. “We will continue to be united in this dialogue, in the daily building of peace and in our commitment to a better world, a world in which every man and woman and every people can live in accordance with their own legitimate aspirations.” The pope concluded with St. Francis’ signature greeting: “May the Lord give you peace.”

After a moment of silence, young people gave those on the platform lighted lamps as a choir sang “A Simple Prayer” (known to people as “The Peace Prayer of St. Francis”). A diocesan choir closed the day by singing “The Canticle of the Creatures,” a song using words written by St. Francis.

During an Oct. 28 audience at the Vatican, the pope said that such meetings show “the continuing need for men and women of different religions to testify together that the journey of the spirit is always a journey of peace. Meetings of this sort are necessarily exceptional and infrequent, yet they are a vivid expression of the fact that every day, throughout our world, people of different religions live and work together in harmony. … Let us continue refreshed on the journey that leads to truth, the pilgrimage that leads to peace.”

Worldwide Response

Millions of people around the world followed this gathering via radio, television and Internet live-streaming. Magazines and newspapers covered the event extensively.

Many people around the world joined in ecumenical and interfaith services around this time. One Buddhist delegation came from the People’s Republic of China. In all, 11 Orthodox patriarchs participated in this anniversary gathering.

By coincidence, two staff members from our company began an Assisi pilgrimage on Oct. 26. They had a good view of the closing event and spoke with visitors from Canada, Germany and Italy. Our Web editor, Diane Houdek, says that she will long remember the powerful rituals: the peace quilt made up of squares tied together, the song, the dance and the oil lamps. She describes the music as “spectacular.”

Tammy Monjaras, head of our customer service department, said that the beautiful fall day, the colors, dancing, music and lighted candles all spoke to the heart. She spoke to two Italian collegians, one studying in Pisa and the other in Florence; they came to see the pope. “Amazing” is her description of this event.

Maxi-screens were set up for the crowds outside St. Mary of the Angels and St. Francis Basilica. Participants at a youth conference there and many long-distance participants will never forget that day. The real test comes through steady work for peace.