.- Over 300 delegates from 50 countries gathered today in Assisi to commit themselves to global peace, but, as expected, they did not pray together.
The papal-led party set off early this morning on a chartered train from the Vatican’s seldom used train station. Along the 125 mile route, the engines three times slowed down to 10 miles per hour to allow the local people in the towns of Terni, Spoleto and Foligno to cheer the Pope as he passed by. Upon arrival in Assisi, the Pope was met by cheering crowds who waved a welcome banner written in German.
Today’s summit, entitled “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace,” was convened to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first World Day for Peace, begun by Pope John Paul II in 1986.
The delegates first gathered in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, where they were welcomed by Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
“The experience of these 25 years invites us even more intensely and with a great sense of urgency,” said the Cardinal Turkson, “to re-commit ourselves today, with the gift of reason and the gifts of faith, to become more and more pilgrims of truth and make our world a place of greater and greater peace.”
His address was followed by a short film recalling the events of the inaugural Assisi gathering in 1986. Most of the pilgrims watched the movie on large television screens outside the basilica.
Back inside the church, the summit then heard from a long succession of religious leaders—some Christian and others not—including an atheist philosopher.
Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, explained how their dialogue was not an exercise in seeing all religions as equal but, “on the contrary, the vision that we praise is inter-religious dialogue,” he said. This dialogue “has a very special sense, which comes from the ability of religions to invest in the same field of society to promote peace.”
The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, praised Blessed Pope John Paul II as a man who “believed passionately that the concerns of human beings in our age for justice and stability were matters that demanded a common witness from people of faith, without any compromise of our own particular convictions and traditions.”
The speeches by Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Williams were followed by words from other Christian leaders as well as representatives of Judaism, Yarubaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and, finally, the French philosopher Julia Kristeva representing non-believers.
She noted that “for the first time homosapiens are capable of destroying the earth and themselves in the name of their beliefs, religions or ideologies,” while simultaneously, “for the first time men and women are able to reassess in total transparency the human religious impulse which is innate.” Kristeva asserted that the diversity of today’s meeting in Assisi showed that “the hypothesis of destruction is not the only possibility.”
The delegates were then addressed by Pope Benedict himself who called upon all humanity to honestly seek truth and peace together.
“It is a case of being together on a journey towards truth, a case of taking a decisive stand for human dignity and a case of common engagement for peace against every form of destructive force,” the Pope said.
Following the meeting in the basilica, Pope Benedict and the delegates made their way to a nearby Franciscan convent for “a frugal lunch,” followed by a period of silence for individual refection and prayer. Unlike the past Assisi gatherings, the day did not include any common prayer.
The Pope’s thinking on such matters – and the Assisi meeting in general - was revealed in a letter published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Oct. 26. The letter was written earlier this year to a long-time friend and Lutheran pastor who allowed the contents to be made public at a conference in Rome earlier this month.
“I understand very well,” wrote the Pope to Pastor Peter Beyerhaus on March 4, “your concern about participating in the encounter of Assisi. But this commemoration would have been celebrated in any case, and, in the end, it seemed to me the best thing to go there personally, in order to try to determine the overall direction.”
“Nonetheless,” said the Pope, “I will do everything I can to make a syncretistic or relativistic interpretation of the event impossible, and to make it clear that I will always believe and confess what I had called the Church's attention to with ‘Dominus Iesus.’”
Later on in the afternoon the Assisi delegates made a joint pilgrimage to the final resting place of St. Francis, where they renewed their common commitment to peace.
At a ceremony outside the church where the saint is buried, the Pope said that today’s event “is an image of how the spiritual dimension is a key element in the building of peace.”
“From my heart, the Pope said, “I thank all of you here present for having accepted my invitation to come to Assisi as pilgrims of truth and peace and I greet each one of you in Saint Francis’ own words: May the Lord grant you peace – ‘il Signore ti dia pace.’”