35th Anniversary of Interreligious Meeting for Peace in Assisi
35 years ago, Pope John Paul II convened the first interreligious meeting to pray for peace in Assisi. PCID’s Secretary, Mons. Indunil J. Kodithuwakku K., addressed those gathered in Assisi to pray for peace.
World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi
Msgr. Indunil J. Kodithuwakku K.
27 October 2021
27th October marks the 35th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi. The courageous decision of Pope John Paul II to invite world religious leaders to Assisi to fast and pray for peace was a milestone in interreligious dialogue. Pope John Paul II and subsequently, his successors have been continuing this journey “to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.” (Nostra Aetate, 3).
The leaders of the various religious traditions flocked to Assisi to pray for peace on 27th October 1986. The presence of the representatives of world religions communicated a powerful symbolic message to the world – the spirit of prayer and non-violence. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, leaders of African and American Traditional Religions and of Shinto took part in this event. The “Spirit of Assisi” continues to foster ecumenical and interreligious dialogue as well as intra-religious dialogue –that is, dialogue within a religion.
Why was Assisi chosen for this remarkable event? According to the words of Pope John Paul II, it was “because of the particular significance of the holy man venerated here – Saint Francis – known and revered by so many throughout the world as a symbol of peace, reconciliation and brotherhood” (Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, 27 October 1986).
An intrinsic message of all religious traditions is peace and non-violence. The “Spirit of Assisi” continues to live, offering a counter-narrative to a world ravaged by conflicts and wars. The 1986 historic summit in Assisi was held in the context of the cold war. The 1993 gathering came amid wars in the Balkans and the middle East, and the 2002 version in the aftermath of 9/11. The year 2011 marked the rise of religious extremism and militant secularism. The 2016 meeting, responded to “a third world war” that is “being fought in pieces,” in the words of Pope Francis.
The Assisi gathering introduced a novelty to interreligious dialogue by discovering the unique value of interreligious prayer for peace. It reminded the world that it is impossible to have peace without prayer. Yet, at the outset, Pope John Paul II clearly defined the form and content of the World Day of Prayer in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding. He noted that we gather “to pray together,” but not “to be together to pray.” According, there were separate places of prayer for each religion. After the prayer in each religious group, all marched in silence towards the lower Square of Saint Francis for the concluding ceremony. Once gathered in the Square, again each religion presented its own prayer, one after the other.
On a later occasion, Pope John Paul II further elaborated the significance of this landmark day and prayer for peace. “Every authentic prayer is under the influence of the Spirit ‘who intercedes insistently for us.’ […] We can indeed maintain that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person. (To the Roman Curia, December 22, 1986).
Pope John Paul II, Assisi 1986
Addressing the representatives of other Christian churches and ecclesial communities in Assisi, Pope John Paul II explained the Christian mission of peace-building and the importance of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue for it. He underlined that “Jesus Christ is truly the Prince of Peace” and “as disciples of Christ we have been sent into the world to proclaim and to bring peace” (Cathedral of St Rufino, 27 October 1986, n.1). In this way, the Church becomes an effective sign and means of reconciliation and peace for the human family. In order to be God’s instruments of peace, the Pope noted that the Assisi prayer ought to foster Christian unity as well. “What we do here today will be less than complete if we go away without a deeper resolution to commit ourselves to continuing the search for full unity and to overcoming the serious divisions which remain” (ibid).
The Pope also invited all Christians to soul-searching concerning their failures to carry out the mission of peace and reconciliation entrusted to them (ibid, n.2). He also injected hope into Christian hearts. “The presence of the Risen Christ in our midst assures us that, through him and in him, this war-torn world can be transformed. By the power of the Spirit of Christ, we can heal the world’s wounds with the love of Christ” (cf. ibid. 2).
Moreover, he also highlighted that prayer for peace must be followed by appropriate action for peace. Thus, our active involvement with issues of justice, which are inseparable from the achievement of peace (cf. ibid, n.3)
His second discourse was addressed to the Christian and other religious leaders present. Here, Pope John Paul II explained the significance and the aim of the world day of prayer in Assisi: i). It was not an interreligious Conference on peace; ii). There wasn’t any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions: iii). It did not mean a concession to relativism in religious beliefs (cf. Basilica of St Mary of the Angels, 27 October 1986, nos. 1-2). He added that the Assisi event will make the world become aware that there exists another dimension of peace and another way of promoting it” and “It is the result of prayer, which, in the diversity of religions, expresses a relationship with a supreme power that surpasses our human capacities alone” (cf. ibid, n.1). Furthermore, without denying the need for the many human resources for peace to exist, he noted “we need prayer – intense, humble and trusting prayer – if the world is finally to become a place of true and permanent peace” (ibid n.3). This prayer is characterized by silence, pilgrimage and fasting, which in turn entails conversion of heart or inner transformation. Pope also warned that “Either we learn to walk together in peace and harmony, or we drift apart and ruin ourselves and others” (ibid, n.5).
In the concluding discourse of the World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope John Paul II reiterated that durable peace comes from a Reality beyond all of us. “Peace depends basically on this Power, which we call God, and as Christians believe has revealed himself in Christ” (Basilica of Saint Francis, 27 October 1986, n.3). He also spoke of the outcome of this historical gathering. “This Day at Assisi has helped us become more aware of our religious commitments. But it has also made the world, looking at us through the media, more aware of the responsibility of each religion regarding problems of war and peace” (ibid, n.6). Thus, Pope pointed out that the universal mission of peace awaits its builders. Peace is a workshop, open to all and not just to specialists, savants and strategists. Peace is a universal responsibility. Peace is in the hands not only of individuals but of nations, of the international organizations and of the United Nations Organization (cf. ibid, n.7).
Reminding all that prayer is vital for peace, he said, “we must continue to pray every day of our life” (ibid, 9). He concluded the event with a prayer attributed to Saint Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, […]” (ibid, n.10).
Pope John Paul II, Assisi 1993
Pope John Paul II again went on a pilgrimage to Assisi for a Day of Prayer with the Representatives of the European Islamic Community to implore peace for the peoples of the continent of Europe, and especially for the Balkan countries. In his address, he underlined the suffering of the people, especially the ordinary citizens. “It is these people, whose voices are too seldom heard on the international stage, who must claim our first attention” (Sacred Convent of Saint Francis – Assisi, 10 January 1993, n.2). Furthermore, he emphasised the moral duty of all to come to the aid of all victims. Pope also strongly condemned the instrumentalisation of religion. “To use religion as an excuse for injustice and violence is a terrible abuse, and it must be condemned by all true believers in God” (Ibid, n. 2).
Pope John Paul II, Assisi, 24 January 2002
In the Aftermath of the bloody 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA and the U.S.- led coalition’s military action against Taliban in Afghanistan in October 2001, the dark clouds of war and terror again covered the world. Reacting to this violent and desperate situation, at the Angelus Prayer of 18 November 2001, Pope called upon Catholics all over to observe 14 December 2001 as a day of prayer and fasting. On the same day, he made another important announcement: inviting representatives of the religions of the world to come to Assisi on 24 January 2002 to pray for an end to hostilities and the advancement of true peace.
In his address to the representatives of the World Religions in Assisi on 24 January 2002, Pope John Paul II stressed the significance of listening to one other because “this itself is already a sign of peace” as well as “serves to scatter the shadows of suspicion and misunderstanding” (Assisi, 24 January 2002, n.1). He reminded all that “hatred can only be overcome through love” (ibid, n.1) Referring to his message for World Day of Peace 2002, he emphasised on the two ‘pillars’ upon which peace rests: commitment to justice and readiness to forgive (ibid, n.2) He also further mentioned that “tragic conflicts often result from an unjustified association of religion with nationalistic, political and economic interests, or concerns of other kinds” (ibid, n. 4) Here, again he echoed the wish of all peace-loving people: “we declare that whoever uses religion to foment violence contradicts religion’s deepest and truest inspiration” (ibid, n. 4).
At this interreligious gathering, ten religious leaders, each read one of the ten commitments in their own language. On 24th February 2002, with an accompanying letter, Pope John Paul II sent the Decalogue for Assisi to all the heads of states and government of the world. The Decalogue follows:
Decalogue of Assisi
1. We commit ourselves to proclaiming our firm conviction that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion, and, as we condemn every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or of religion, we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to eliminate the root causes of terrorism.
2. We commit ourselves to educating people to mutual respect and esteem, in order to help bring about a peaceful and fraternal coexistence between people of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions.
3. We commit ourselves to fostering the culture of dialogue, so that there will be an increase of understanding and mutual trust between individuals and among peoples, for these are the premise of authentic peace.
4. We commit ourselves to defending the right of everyone to live a decent life in accordance with their own cultural identity, and to form freely a family of his own.
5. We commit ourselves to frank and patient dialogue, refusing to consider our differences as an insurmountable barrier, but recognizing instead that to encounter the diversity of others can become an opportunity for greater reciprocal understanding.
6. We commit ourselves to forgiving one another for past and present errors and prejudices, and to supporting one another in a common effort both to overcome selfishness and arrogance, hatred and violence, and to learn from the past that peace without justice is no true peace.
7. We commit ourselves to taking the side of the poor and the helpless, to speaking out for those who have no voice and to working effectively to change these situations, out of the conviction that no one can be happy alone.
8. We commit ourselves to taking up the cry of those who refuse to be resigned to violence and evil, and we are desire to make every effort possible to offer the men and women of our time real hope for justice and peace.
9. We commit ourselves to encouraging all efforts to promote friendship between peoples, for we are convinced that, in the absence of solidarity and understanding between peoples, technological progress exposes the world to a growing risk of destruction and death.
10. We commit ourselves to urging leaders of nations to make every effort to create and consolidate, on the national and international levels, a world of solidarity and peace based on justice.
Pope Benedict XVI, Assisi, 27 October 2011
The theme of the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi 2011 was “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.” For the first time, some agnostics also were invited to this event. According to Pope Benedict XVI, “They are also pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace because, even though, they have not received the gift of faith, they are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for God” (cf. Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, Assisi, 27 October 2011). In his address, Pope Benedict XVI identified two types of the new forms of violence. They are: terrorism and militant secularism.
Pope accepts that terrorism is often religiously motivated. On the other hand, he challenges the post-Enlightenment critique of religion which argues that religion is a cause of violence fuelling hostility towards religions. He attests that “The religious delegates who were assembled in Assisi in 1986 wanted to say, and we now repeat it emphatically and firmly: this is not the true nature of religion” (ibid,).
The Pope also deals with a second complex type of violence –namely, the denial of God. He points out that “the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds” (ibid). He cites the concentration camps as the consequences of God’s absence.
He invites the religious groups to soul-searching: “the constant need for purification of lived religion” and also tells the other group that “the denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence” (ibid,)
Pope Francis, Assisi, 2016
Pope Francis participated in the 30th anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on 20th September 2016 under the theme “Thirst for Peace: Faiths and Cultures in Dialogue.” In his address, the Pope noted indifference as the great sickness of our time. “It is a virus that paralyzes, rendering us lethargic and insensitive, a disease that eats away at the very heart of religious fervour, giving rise to a new and deeply sad paganism: the paganism of indifference” (Address, 20 September 2016).
He maintains that “We cannot remain indifferent” because “Today the world has a profound thirst for peace” and the power of prayer can revert this situation. He claims that “Without syncretism or relativism, we have rather prayed side by side and for each other.” Referring to the continuing journey of the “Spirit of Assisi” he echoed: “We never tire of repeating that the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone is holy. Peace alone is holy, not war” (ibid,). Pope also presented a fourfold approach to foster peace. Peace means Forgiveness; Peace means Welcome; Peace means Cooperation; and Peace denotes Education.
Thirsty-five years have passed since Saint John Paul II first invited representatives of the world’s religions to Assisi to pray for peace. The “spirit of Assisi” as a continuing journey, is celebrated now annually by the Community of Sant’Egidio. It also continues to influence the followers of other religious tradition since its inception e.g. the Religious Summit Meeting on Mount Hiei in Japan since 1987.
What is the situation of peace in the world today? The Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted untold suffering to all and contributed to world insecurity. The world is replete with stories of wounded humanity and nature. Fratelli Tutti (FT) notes that certain trends in our world hinder and shatter the dream of developing universal fraternity (cf. FT 9). Therefore, “In many parts of the world, there is a need for paths of peace to heal open wounds (FT 225). It entails breaking the vicious cycle – violence leads to more violence. Yet, sadly, some believe that reconciliation is a sign of weakness; incapable of truly serious dialogue (FT 236) and are obsessed with taking revenge and destroying the other (FT 242). For some, the great goals of developing the entire human family nowadays sounds like madness (FT 16).
The document Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together and the Encyclical Fratelli tutti are prophetic because in place of apparent “clash of civilization”, they foster a “culture of encounter”; in place of tribalism they promote fraternity. FT affirms that “religious classics can prove meaningful in every age” (FT 275) and the Church has a mission to “reawaken the spiritual energy” (FT 276) of Christians and of others through dialogue to restore human fraternity. Accordingly, mission also becomes an act of dialogue which has a triple task to fulfil:
- Prophetic: The annunciation of God’s word as well as the denunciation of systemic injustice that injures human dignity. The unjust contexts need to be changed because peoples and nature long for liberation;
- Healing: Sin and evil wound all – human persons as well as nature. Violence and hatred are signs of woundedness. Revenge resolves nothing, therefore, all are in need of healing – the victim, the perpetrator and our common home. Healing restores broken humanity and ravaged nature.
- Fraternal: Breaking down the walls of separation of the “us” and “them” and fostering true brotherhood and sisterhood among peoples and safeguarding creation. This requires creating a new culture; a culture of encounter supplanting the sectarian impulse, sense of superiority and demonization.
The “spirit of Assisi” is much needed to our own times as well. Therefore, its memory must be commemorated and also transmitted to the younger generations so that this common journey for peace will continue.