Twenty-five years after his predecessor Blessed Pope John Paul II convened the first meeting of religions in Assisi, Pope Benedict XVI presided over another World Day of Prayer for Peace along with leaders of other faiths in the home town of St Francis to renew a common pledge to peace and nonviolence.
During the morning ceremony yesterday in Santa Maria degli Angeli, the pontiff acknowledged his “great shame” for the violence done throughout history “in the name of the Christian faith.” He added, however, that “it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature.”
About 300 representatives of world faiths arrived in Assisi via the Vatican’s seldom-used railway station. They met first in the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, built around the small church of La Porziuncola, renovated by St Francis himself at the beginning of his ministry in the 13th century.
There they reflected collectively on religions’ contribution to the construction of world peace. Later, after a moment set aside for personal prayer and reflection in the nearby convent, religious leaders met again in the square in front of St Francis basilica before paying homage to the Poverello’s tomb.
Pope Benedict repeated the words his predecessor spoke at the end of the first Assisi meeting in 1986: “Violence never again, war never again, terrorism never again.”
Pope Benedict also said that the world had changed since the first interfaith gathering in Assisi. Though no Cold War divided the world and the prospect of another “great war” was remote, he said violence is far from disappearing from the world.
The pope strongly condemned acts of terrorism and violence.
When terrorism is “religiously motivated” and “the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty,” man considers himself “entitled to discard the rules of morality for the sake of the intended ‘good,’” he said.
But the pontiff also said that the withering of religious sense in many parts of the world has led to “a decline of man and humanity” and that worship of mammon, possessions and power is proving to be a counter-religion, in which it is no longer man who counts but only personal advantage.”
As a counterbalance to rising secularization, the pontiff then praised those non-believers who “do not simply assert ‘There is no God,’” but “suffer from his absence and yet are inwardly making their way towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness”.
If they don’t find God, he said, it is often because His “image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practiced.”
Four representatives of non-believers were invited to join religious leaders in Assisi for the first time in the history of these gatherings, and they participated in the pledge for peace.
Eleven religious leaders spoke before the pope, including patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, Rabbi David Rosen, representing the chief rabbinate of Israel, and Wande Abimbola, president of a Nigerian institute that promotes the study of traditional religion of the Yoruba people.
Hindu representative Shrivatsa Goswami of India challenged leaders to ask themselves why interfaith dialogue has not had a greater impact on the world in the last 25 years.
Hasyim Muzadi, general secretary of the Indonesia-based International Conference of Islamic Scholars could not attend as scheduled but sent a speech in which he recalled that “reality demonstrates that many human problems on this planet in fact originate from people [within] religions.”
Despite this, he wrote, faiths must build upon their common “hope for the creation of human harmony, justice, prosperity and an improved standard of human life.”
The grand mufti of Tajikistan delivered an impromptu speech in Arabic that was not on the meeting’s program, while Ja-Seung, a Korean Buddhist representative, told religious leaders to join in a “fraternity for life.”
Reverend Olav Fykse Tveit, a Lutheran minister and secretary general of the World Council of Churches in his address urged religious leaders to focus on youth, whose energy he said could be a source for change, as witnessed during the so-called Arab Spring, or could be wasted by unemployment and frustration, which eventually leads to violence.
In the afternoon, a group of young people gave religious leaders lamps as a symbol of their commitment to be bearers of peace throughout the world.
The day’s events closed with a final prayer recited by Cardinal Kurt Koch and inspired by a prayer by St Francis: “Let us become instruments of the peace that comes from above.”