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Interreligious Encounter in Assisi

14 Oct 2011 – by John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Slowly and carefully, the Vatican is setting the stage for the third edition of the interreligious “prayer for peace” encounter in the Italian pilgrimage town of Assisi.

The Oct. 27 event marks the 25th anniversary of the first such gathering. As in 1986, it is expected to draw representatives from many Christian denominations and more than a dozen other faiths.

In convening the prayer summit, Pope Benedict XVI is clearly reaffirming the ecumenical and interreligious outreach of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II. But the German pope has also marked out his own course, with modifications and additions that, in the Vatican’s view, leave the event less open to misinterpretation.

For one thing, the participants will not pray together — at least, not in a formal fashion. They will gather at the end of the day for a moment of silence and testimonials to peace.

Although the border between prayer and reflection may be ambiguous in such encounters, it appears that Assisi 2011 will not repeat the formula of 1986, when representatives of each major religion offered a prayer at a final joint service.

Just as 25 years ago, participants will break off during the day for separate prayer services. But the difference is that this time around the prayers will be private moments in a cloistered monastery, not public performances throughout the town of Assisi.

In 1986, what generated the most interest among the media troops who went to Assisi were these very colorful and distinct forms of prayer, many of which took place inside Catholic places of worship.

Buddhist monks chanted to the sound of a bronze gong. An animist from Ghana started a fire in a cup. A tribal chief from Togo invited spirits to enter a bowl of water. A Native American “blessed” people on the head with eagle feathers.

For a few hours, Assisi seemed like a spiritual kaleidoscope, with clouds of smoke, sheep-hair amulets, tambourines and multi-colored robes. And it left some critics with the impression that Christian and non- Christian elements were being mixed together inappropriately.

The program for this year’s encounter appears designed to ensure that the private prayers will not have a public audience.

The third and perhaps most striking element of Pope Benedict’s Assisi gathering is that the Vatican has invited five prominent nonbelievers to participate. The group includes the well-known British philosopher A.C. Grayling, who has argued that religion has had a disproportionately large influence in society.

The Vatican made a point of inviting them because, although nonbelievers, they are seen as actively engaged in a debate over ethics, metaphysics and truth. That reflects the aim of the Vatican’s new “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project, which seeks to promote discussions between Christians and nonbelievers around the world.

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Tags: Pope Benedict XVI Vatican Interreligious Christian-Muslim relations Assisi