Twenty-seven years after Pope John XXIII announced to the cardinals that he would call an ecumenical council, another pope announced that he would consult with world religious leaders to organize with them a special meeting of prayer for peace, in the city of Assisi. Pope John Paul II chose the same day (Jan. 25), place (the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls) and occasion (the final service of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity) to make his announcementsurely no accident of history. Pope John’s surprising news would transform Catholicism. Pope John Paul’s announcement would change the character of the Catholic commitment to interreligious dialogue.
One of Pope John XXIII’s original aims was to convene a truly ecumenical council. While furthering Christian unity was groundbreaking for the Catholic Church, the ecumenical movement was already more than a half-century old. That could not be said of interreligious dialogue. The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) was the shortest of 16 conciliar documents, if for no other reason than the extreme novelty of the message and the controversy surrounding it. It was so new that bishops had little to say on which there was consensus.
Addressing the relationship of the church with the Jewsthe initial idea that grew into Nostra Aetate did not originate with Pope John, nor was it the project of a widely organized movement at the time. But once the esteemed Professor Jules Isaac presented the idea to Pope John XXIII in June 1960, the pope never abandoned it, not even when it became so politicized that authorities removed it from the council’s agenda before the first session opened in 1962. Pope John XXIII restored it to the agenda, but in the council’s three remaining periods, there were other attempts to remove the text, to break it into pieces or to organize an opposition. At the time, interreligious relations concerned millions of Catholics in countries like India, but not the majority of Catholics in Europe and America (who were concerned with ecumenical and Christian-Jewish matters).
In the postconciliar division of labor, Jewish relations, the heart but not the only topic of Nostra Aetate, remained under the Secretariat for Christian Unity, whose central task was to overcome division among Christians. The Secretariat for Non-Christians took up relations with all others.
Pope Paul VI eloquently urged bishops to look beyond the confines of the Christian horizon. His 1964 encyclical on the church, Ecclesiam Suam, influenced Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church to mention favorably Muslims and others who seek God in the dialogue of salvation. Pope Paul established a secretariat to implement interreligious dialogue and graciously addressed and received Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others. He spoke to a group of visitors from Japan weeks before his death. Yet in spite of what Pope Paul VI was doing, interreligious relations for most Catholics remained distant, almost exotic.
The World Day of Prayer for Peace
The World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986 changed that. It proved to be more than a single, spectacular, interreligious event. Pope John Paul II organized two more days of prayer at Assisi in 1993 and 2002, and invited the Community of Sant’Egidio to insure annual celebrations to preserve the spirit of Assisi. This year’s commemorations were endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI.
Observers have commented on how delighted Pope John Paul seemed in companionship with members of other religions. In one photo of the papal pilgrimage to Egypt in the Jubilee Year 2000, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University converses with Pope John Paul, gently holding his arm.
When the pope entered the synod hall being used for the World Conference of Religions for Peace in 1994, he looked at the group’s colorful religious attire and blurted out, Ah, the second synod of Rome. After he had given his greetings, he sat quietly and respectfully as others spoke. The pope observed the Muslim seated next to him and the Buddhist on the other side, fingering their beads in prayer, and took out his rosary. Quietly reminded of other appointments, he stayed, relishing the company. Finally urged to take his leave, the pope apologized that he could not greet all personally but invited them back. Rome is always open, he said. They returned in large numbers, over 200 from more than 22 religious groups, for an interreligious assembly in 1999. On that occasion they prayed with the pope and committed themselves to peace in a concluding service with the pope on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.
In his first encyclical, Redemptoris Hominis (1979), John Paul II endorsed the initiatives of Vatican II issuing from the conciliar vision of the church, especially ecumenism and interreligious relations. Later that year in Ankara, Turkey, he urged the tiny Catholic community to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds that unite us with Muslims.
On his first pastoral visit to Africa (1980), the pope declared a double mission: evangelization and interreligious dialogue. Members of religious groups had trouble fitting these two neatly together, but they nearly always welcomed the vigorous pope eager for interreligious encounters. Speaking in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of Muslim youths in Morocco five months before announcing the first Day of Prayer in Assisi, John Paul II delivered an extended instruction on relations between Christians and Muslims.
In India (1986) the pope spoke to multireligious audiences in New Delhi, Calcutta and Madras and walked as a pilgrim to Raj Ghat, a civil and religious shrine to Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India.
Two months later, John Paul II made his historic visit to the Synagogue of Rome. Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, who later joined the pope in Assisi, expressed his intense satisfaction at the gesture, destined, he said, to be remembered throughout history. In 1962 Rabbi Toaff had seen Pope John XXIII outside the synagogue in his car blessing Jews as they left services; now he had seen another pope enter the synagogue to pray. In Assisi, John Paul would host an interreligious day of prayer.
Does Interreligious Prayer Matter?
What was so significant about that first Assisi event? The religious leaders did nothing more than fast, keep silence, walk together and pray. Despite their differences, they stood in respectful silence as representatives of each group offered prayers for peace in the presence of the others. Praying together raises all sorts of questions about prayer and belief, but being present when others pray enriches the experience of prayer.
One count of that October day lists 48 persons representing 30 churches, Christian world communions, councils of churches and Christian organizations. (Dr. Paul Crow, President of the Council on Christian Unity, Disciples of Christ, the sole American Christian among principal representatives, described Assisi ’86 as an event that changed his life.) But not only Christians were present. Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Shinto, Sikh and traditional or tribal representatives from Asia, Africa, America and elsewhere came in equal numbers as official representatives.
The opening service presented a striking picture. Pope John Paul stood in the center of two human arcs. On his right were Metropolitan Methodios, representing the ecumenical patriarchate, Dr. Robert Runcie, other Orthodox and Protestant leaders, rounding out with Rabbi Toaff. On his left were the Dalai Lama, other Buddhist leaders, Muslims, Hindus, around to the Crow Native Americans. The picture alone is worth a thousand documents.
Pope John Paul linked this extraordinary day of prayer especially to Nostra Aetate and the commitment of the Catholic Church to interreligious dialogue.
Later, amid the quagmire of a Balkan war, John Paul II invited Christians, Jews and Muslims back to Assisi. Twenty-nine Muslims from Europe participated in the 1993 event. Pope John Paul assured them of the Catholic Church’s readiness to cooperate in the various domains of Nostra Aetate devoted to relations with Muslims, social justice, moral values, peace and freedom; and he complimented their solidarity, presence and religious belief leading to mutual understanding and harmony.
Two months after the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Pope John Paul invited Catholics to join Muslims in a day of fasting and almsgiving on the last Friday of Ramadan and the second Friday of Advent. Then he announced his proposal for a third day of prayer in Assisi, especially to bring Christians and Muslims together to proclaim to the world that religion must never be a reason for conflict, hatred and violence. He reasoned that humanity needed to see gestures of peace and to hear words of hope at that historic moment. For this final Assisi day, participants agreed to do something new: they solemnly voiced a commitment to peace. Taking turns, Christian, Sikh, Muslim, Confucian, Buddhist and Jewish leaders recited a portion of the statement for the group, while the others listened in silence.
The historical context has changed from the first Assisi day in 1986 during the cold war, through the collapse of Communist regimes and on to a new millennium marked by acts of terrorist violence. Benedict XVI has called John Paul’s initiative an accurate prophecy.
Paving the Way for Dialogue
Interreligious dialogue was a hallmark of the long papacy of John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI, only months into his pontificate, told Muslims that interreligious dialogue with them could not be reduced to some optional extra, words similar to his predecessor’s description of interreligious dialogue as not just some sort of appendix’...to the church’s traditional activity. Benedict’s recent letter to the Bishop of Assisi highlighted how the prayer of people of diverse traditions does not divide but unites.
After that first interreligious prayer for peace in 1986, it seems that interreligious dialogues became easier for Rome to organize. The secretariat, newly named the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, has established several ongoing dialogues with international Islamic organizations, another with Buddhists, and others that seemed to elude earlier efforts by the Vatican. Pope John Paul II helped place interreligious dialogue at the center of the church’s mission. The results extend beyond what has happened in Rome.
The interreligious events at Assisi and elsewhere were appealing embodiments of Vatican II’s commitment to interreligious dialogue. They demonstrate that everyone could share bedrock spiritual values and incorporate interreligious dialogue as a spiritual practice.
Christians still need to grow together in reconciliation, mutual understanding and living the communion they already share. This must take place locally if high-level ecumenical agreements are to succeed. Ecumenism, which aims to restore unity among Christians and establish full communion among churches, requires participation and coordination by the highest authorities in the church. Interreligious dialogue, however, does not require centralized coordination. Papal encouragement is helpful, and Pope John Paul’s example was exactly what was needed at the time, but interreligious dialogue is an essential part of being Catholic today.
What Parishes and Dioceses Can Do
Two fall events, John Paul II’s first World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi (Oct. 27, 1986) and the promulgation of Nostra Aetate (Oct. 28, 1965), encourage interreligious sharing. The double anniversary provides an opportunity for groups to study, discuss and celebrate Jewish-Christian relations and various kinds of interreligious relations. Consider co-organizing a short retreat with fasting, silence, walking together and prayer in distinct groups. Or plan an interreligious service where each group prays in its own way, while others are present in silence.
Interreligious dialogue works best in local settings, where individuals can grow in trust and interreligious friendship. It is by no means confined to church leaders and scholars in formal, organized meetings. A key ingredient for successful interreligious dialogue is prayer. As Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, who for 20 years served as secretary and then president of the Roman office for interreligious dialogue, has said, Prayer for peace can be a distinct interreligious activity, but prayer should permeate all interreligious endeavors.