.- The Oct. 27 gathering of religious leaders in Assisi to discuss global peace will include four leading atheists, but will not include any common prayer.
“The emphasis is on the pilgrimage not on praying together,” said Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, at a Vatican press conference Oct. 18.
“It is an exercise of dialogue, and dialogue always respects the specific identity of the people, of individuals.”
The October 27 event in Assisi is entitled “Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace” and is being held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first World Day for Peace, begun by Pope John Paul II in 1986.
“The world today, as it did 25 years ago, needs peace,” said Cardinal Turkson adding that “following two and a half decades of collaboration and joint witness among religions it is time to assess the results and to re-launch our commitment in the face of new challenges.”
Today’s press conference confirmed that the only public prayer to mark the summit will be specifically Catholic in nature and will be led by Pope Benedict in St. Peter’s Square the evening before.
“The real prayer will be here at St. Peter’s on the vigil when the Holy Father is with the Catholic faithful,” said Cardinal Turkson.
The next day over 300 delegates from 50 countries will set off from the Vatican station on a specially charted train heading for the small Umbrian hill-town from where St. Francis hailed.
Upon arrival they will gather at the basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels where delegates will discuss the legacy of previous meetings as well as present challenges. They will also be addressed by Pope Benedict.
A “frugal lunch” will follow, after which each delegate will be assigned a room in a nearby Franciscan hostel where - if they so wish - they can observe a period of silence, prayer or reflection.
Later in the day, the group will make its way to the tomb of St. Francis, where they will renew their commitment to world peace.
Significantly, amongst the 176 delegates from non Judeo-Christian religions, there will be 50 Muslims—nearly five times as many as were present in 1986.
The Dalai Lama, however, will not be able to attend “due to a prior commitment,” said Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
From the Christian world there will be 31 delegations. Included in that number will be important church leaders such as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, as well as key figures from other ecclesial communions such as Archbishop Rowan Williams, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
One delegation that will attend for the first time will be a group of atheists, including the Austrian economist Walter Baier and three philosophers - Bodei Remo from Italy, Julia Kristeva from France and Mexico’s Guillermo Hurtado.
“This innovative idea of the Holy Father’s,” said Monsignor Andrea Palmieri of the Pontifical Council for Culture, “is based on the conviction that men and women, both believers and non-believers, are always searching for God, for the Absolute, and that they are, therefore, all pilgrims traveling towards the fullness of truth.”
One late withdrawal, though, is the English philosopher and arch-critic of Catholicism, Anthony Grayling.
“I thought it was originally to have a discussion with the Pope about the place of religion in society,” he told the Catholic Herald Oct. 18. But then “it turned out it was a minor event and what they wanted was these guests to accompany the Pope on a pilgrimage. So I decided to withdraw.”