The National Catholic Review

[SANTA MARIA DEGLI ANGELI, ASSISI] A lot of journalistic ink has been spilled on the differences between the interreligious gathering led by the Pope today and the first one, called by John Paul II in 1986.

Back in the summer, Vatican heavyweights were brought out to "clarify" any misunderstandings about the Pope calling together the different faiths. First, said Cardinal William Levada, it was theologically justified: "The original bond between ethos and legos, and between religion and reason," said the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "lies ultimately in Christ, the Divine Logos: precisely because of this, Christianity is able to restore this bond to the world."

Secondly, what enabled the religions to be in dialogue was "religious experience, without falling into relativism or syncretism", explained the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who said that Assisi is an attempt to translate into action Article 2 of the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, which declares that the Church rejects nothing that is "true and holy" in other religions.

Third, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran said that interreligious dialogue was not a negotiation, it did not seek to erase differences, and it does not seek to create a "universal religion, accepted by all". True dialogue was instead "a space for reciprocal testimony between believers of different religions, to know better the other's religion and the ethical conduct that stems from it", and so "to know the other as he is, as he has a right to be known".

The clarification campaign was intended the remaining legacy of hostility in some quarters -- not least from Catholic traditionalists, whom the Pope has been wooing -- to what was seen as a "syncretic" or "relativistic" event. As John Thavis of CNS puts it in an excellent backgrounder:  "For a few hours [in 1986] 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."

Famously, the then prefect of the CDF, Joseph Ratzinger, stayed away, critical of the colourful public acts of prayer by non-Christians in and around the sacred places of Assisi. He later wrote that the meeting gave "a false impression of common ground that does not exist in reality".

So when Pope John Paul II held a second Assisi gathering, in 2002, representatives of the dozen or so religions did not pray publicly, but were sent off behind closed doors to hold their own prayers. In the formula of the time, they were praying "at the same time" but not "together". In what was seen as CDF approval of the new formula, Cardinal Ratzinger conspicuously attended, and was on hand to assist a by then weak Pope John Paul II. 

What's happening today is different again in certain particulars, and bears the stamp of Pope Benedict's priorities. First, it is being cast as a "pilgrimage" and a day of "reflection and dialogue" as well as "prayer". Both 1986 and 2002 were billed as Days of Prayer for Peace, whereas today is a "Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World" with the subtitle: "Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace".

Combining "pilgrimage" with "truth" has allowed the Vatican to cast today as a journey undertaken together towards a truth that exists but is imperfectly attained; the shared experience of not attaining the whole truth is what all faiths have in common. Back in July, Cardinal Bertone observed that "To affirm that one is a pilgrim means to admit than one has not yet arrived at the goal, or better yet, that the goal always transcends us." Every person of goodwill, the cardinal added, "is on a journey, because he is conscious that the truth always surpasses him".

Secondly, today's participants include  -- at the Pope's own request -- representatives of nonbelievers, raising the question of whether atheists can nowadays be said to be part of "interfaith dialogue". The inclusion of atheist philosophers reflects the Pope's belief that in secular Europe the Church needs to be actively engaging nonbelievers; hence his 'Courtyard of the Gentiles' project. 

But some believe that including nonbelievers also allows Assisi III to dispel once and for all any criticisms of relativism and syncretism. This time, members of the different faiths are not retiring to separate spaces to pray together; this time, there is no prayer built into the schedule at all, except as an individual option. The timetable says that between 1345 and 1530 there will be "a time of silence for reflection and/or personal prayer. Each of the participants is being assigned a room in the retreat house adjoining the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli".

If Assisi I could be criticized for being syncretic, Assisi III could be criticized for being something of a "Parliament of Religions", in which speechmaking takes precedence over prayer.

The third difference is that Assisi III is being held to commemorate 25 years since Assisi I, rather than in response to world events. Assisi I was called by Pope John Paul II in response to superpower tensions over Reagan's "Star Wars"; Assisi II was held in the wake of the Twin Towers. 

Pope Benedict has therefore broadened the purpose of today's gathering to include "justice". It's about forging an alliance of common interests on issues such as marriage and social justice. Alarmed at the growing intolerance of what he has described as the "dictatorship of relativism" today's event is also about the Pope defending the presence of religion in the public square. In that sense, Assisi III is part of a wider argument Benedict XVI is having with western secularism, and it will be interesting to hear the content of his speeches at the beginning and end of the day.

But too much focus on the differences between Assisi I and III can obscure the continuities. Today is Pope Benedict's initiative, and he is seeking to embed the vision of his predecessor in the life of the Church. The delegates will arrive together by train, as they did in Assis I and II; there will be a sucession of speeches by religious leaders -- creating space for listening to the prioriries and experiences of different faiths. And today's events will conclude, as did Assisi I and II, with a common pledge in the square of the Basilica of St Francis up in the town.

So while today may be different in some important respects, it represents a development, not a revision, of Pope John Paul II's original idea. It remains prophetic, daring -- and something perhaps only a pope could organize.