Assisi and the Spirit of St. Francis

UPDATE: Sandro Magister has a new post on the controversy surrounding the term “Spirit of Assisi” and its perceptions in the Vatican. Read more here

This week, world religious leaders gathered in Assisi to pray for peace. Several news outlets reported the event, here and here, as well as a good summary by Sandro Magister (1) which includes some of the major concerns and opportunities, as well as a private letter by Pope Benedict XVI to a Lutheran minister, seen below (2).

  1. ROME, October 26, 2011 – For the “day of reflection, dialogue, and prayer for peace and justice in the world” that he has convened for tomorrow in Assisi, twenty-five years after the controversial first edition held by his predecessor as pope, Benedict XVI has introduced two new features. The first is the extension of the invitation, in addition to representatives of the religions of the whole world, to nonbelievers as well. With their presence, the day of Assisi will take the form of a symbolic “courtyard of the Gentiles,” animated not only by the “God-fearers,” but also by those who do not believe in God, without, however, ceasing from searching for him. The nonbelievers who have agreed to participate in the day of Assisi are the Italian philosopher Remo Bodei, the Mexican philosopher Guillermo Hurtado, the Austrian economist Walter Baier, and the French psychoanalytic philosopher Julia Kristeva, who will be the final speaker during the initial phase of the meeting, after a series of nine talks by religious representatives including ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and Rabbi David Rosen of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. After Julia Kristeva, Benedict XVI will speak, in his only talk of the day.
  2. “I understand very well,” the pope writes, “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, 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’.”

What the Pope emphasized in his Vigil homily was a reflection on peace and the centrality of Jesus Christ, who conquers through love and meekness. To this ecumenical dimension of the meeting, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the centrality of the Eucharist, as he has done in the past. In his address to the Assisi meeting he gave a diagnosis to the current threats to peace, which broadly come in the form of religious fanaticism or atheistic fanaticism, both eschewed understandings of God. This is a recurring theme for Benedict XVI, present for example in his famous dialogue with Habermas on the pathologies of religion and pathologies of reason. He also mentioned the misguided idea of freedom that marks our current spiritual climate, another of his key reflections, as well as the worship to Mammon, which he has cconnected to one root of environmental problems. 

The environment did not figure prominently  in the Pope’s words, though there was a specific mention by Cardinal Turkson (1), head of Justice and Peace who organized the event from the Vatican. Also pertinent to environmental issues was the beautiful reflection by Rabbi Rosen (2) on the animals in Noah’s Ark and Isaiah, and the need for going beyond a pragmatic peace to a deeper one. The vision of a harmony in creation is a symbol for our deep longing for peace. Below some of the key highlights:

  1. We come also to bear witness to the great power of religion for good, and to renew a common commitment to building peace, to reconciling those in conflict and to bringing man back into harmony with creation. The twenty-five years of our joint effort for peace have richly displayed our sense of brotherhood and solidarity in the service of our world and the human family. But the years have also been fraught with challenges to the sense of man and history. We have entered a century in which ideologies would reduce the sense of human person, and distort the relationships with nature. The strong resource competition among peoples in a climate-constrained environment threatens to dissolve the fabric of human society and devastate the very order of creation which Francis of Assisi praised in his Canticle of the Sun. The beautiful song bespeaks an awakening to the universe to be seen not only as a collection of things to be worked and consumed but also as a “community of life” to be entered into profoundly, humbly and creatively. 
  2. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and they shall not learn war any more” and the prophet continues (11: 6-9) … “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb; and the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” There is a very well known comment of the great rabbi Meir Simcha of Dwinsk,who lived a hundred years ago. He observed that this vision of peace had already taken place in the religious history of humankind – in Noah’s ark. Already there, predatory animals had to live a vegetarian existence and their potential prey could live in peace. However he points out that the profound difference between the situation in Noah’s ark and Isaiah’s vision, is that in Noah’s ark there was no choice. This was the only option available for the animals in order to survive the flood. Isaiah’s vision however, is born out of “the knowledge of the Lord”; it is a vision that emanates from the deepest spiritual understanding and volition.For many in our world, peace is a pragmatic necessity as indeed it is, and we must not diminish in any way from the blessing for our world from such pragmatism. However what men and women of faith seek and for which they strive “to ascend to the mountain of the Lord”, is the appreciation of peace as the sublime expression of Divine Will and the Divine Image in which every human person is created.

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