Pope Benedict XVI has invited Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims to a pilgrimage at the Umbrian hilltop town of Assisi, but the leaders won't take part in common prayers as they did when summoned for a daylong prayer for peace by Pope John Paul II 25 years ago.
Instead, Benedict held a pre-trip prayer service for Catholics at the Vatican on Wednesday, since Thursday's Assisi event — unlike the 1986 edition — will only feature time for individual prayer and reflection.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger didn't attend the 1986 event and disapproved of members of different faiths praying in the presence of one another. As a result, the 25th anniversary edition won't involve any communal prayer: The estimated 300 participants will be given time to pray silently in individual rooms assigned to each one after lunch.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, who helped organize Thursday's event as head of the Vatican's justice and peace office, said the "real" prayer for peace commemorating John Paul's 1986 meeting was Wednesday's vigil service inside the Vatican.
"The emphasis is on pilgrimage rather than on praying together," Turkson told reporters last week.
Twenty-five years ago, John Paul's declaration of a global day of peace was radical amid the era's Cold War tensions: War was raging in Lebanon and on the Iran-Iraq border, Contra guerrillas were fighting Nicaragua's leftist government and IRA bombs were going off in Northern Ireland. A U.S-Russia nuclear arms control summit had just ended in a stalemate.
Nevertheless, John Paul rallied the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Japanese Shinto priests, fire-worshipping Zoroastrians, peace-pipe-smoking Native Americans and the chief rabbi of Rome to come to Assisi. He made clear they weren't praying together but were rather being together to pray — a distinction designed to rule out any whiff of syncretism, or the combining of different beliefs and practices.
The distinction, however, was lost on many in the Vatican and among conservative and traditionalist Catholics who criticized the 1986 event and subsequent Assisi interfaith prayer meetings as implying that all religions were somehow equal.
In 2000, when he was head of the Vatican's doctrine office, Ratzinger issued a controversial document in part as a response to the 1986 Assisi meeting, stressing that the fullness of the means of salvation was found in the Catholic Church alone.
Now Benedict is presiding over his first Assisi interreligious gathering, and the decision to eliminate any common prayer is seen as his way of further correcting the wrongs of the 1986 event. Wednesday's vigil prayer service — held inside the Vatican and designed for Catholics — drove the point home.
"As Christians, we want to ask God for the gift of peace, we want to ask that he gives us instruments of peace in a world still lacerated by hatred, divisions, egoisms and war," Benedict said.
He said he hoped Thursday's Assisi meeting would encourage dialogue among people of different faiths and would "bring a ray of light to illuminate the hearts and minds of all men so that rancor is replaced by forgiveness, division by reconciliation, hatred by love, violence by moderation — and that peace reigns in the world."
Benedict will welcome the various delegations at the Vatican on Thursday morning and they will travel by papal train to Assisi, the town known for the peace-loving message of its native son St. Francis.
There will be remarks and a shared light lunch, followed by the time for individual reflection and prayer. The delegates will walk together in a pilgrimage for a bit before coming together for concluding remarks and the train ride back to Rome.
The guest list includes the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and representatives from Greek, Russian, Serbian and Belarusian Orthodox churches. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams is coming for the Anglican church, and representatives from Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist and other Christian denominations are on the list as well.
Several rabbis will be joined by some 60 Muslims, a similar number of Buddhists, three Taoists, a half-dozen Hindus, three Jains and a Zoroastrian. Also invited for the first time are four intellectuals who profess no faith at all — part of Benedict's efforts to reach out to atheists.