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With the interreligious meeting that will take place in Assisi (Italy) on October 27 only a few months away, the Vatican daily newspaper invited several cardinals to write for its columns in support of that gathering celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the one organized by John Paul II in October 1986.

So it was that on July 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State of the Holy See, signed a long guest editorial, followed three days later by a reflection of Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which endeavored to explain that the interreligious dialogue was seeking “neither to underscore differences nor to erase them” (sic) nor to create a world religion accepted by all.  This dialogue “is not a conversation among religious leaders or believers of different religions, it is not a negotiation of a diplomatic sort, nor a forum for bargaining, much less compromise,” it does not serve political or social interests.  Instead, as the French prelate sees it, “true dialogue is a space for reciprocal witness between believers belonging to different religions, so as to know more about and better understand the other’s religion, … to correct erroneous notions and to get beyond the prejudices and stereotypes about persons and communities”.

On July 6 it was Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who declared in L’Osservatore Romano that this day in Assisi must not be interpreted wrongly “as an act of syncretism”, but rather that “each religion would be invited to address to God the prayer that corresponds to its specific belief” (sic).  The next day Cardinal William Joseph Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, penned a piece on the same subject.  It was followed on the 8th by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who announced the presence of “personages from the fields of culture, science and philosophy who do not belong to any codified religious expression and who embody—with different profiles—the multitude of those who profess no creed and yet possess an ethical, humanist vision of being and existence”.  Among those unbelieving intellectuals will be the French psychoanalyst of Bulgarian origin, Julia Kristeva, Cardinal Ravasi announced;  in his opinion “even those who do not call themselves believers but are journeying with their reason, their art, their intellectual and human energies … have their gift to offer to believers.” (sic).

On July 9, Bishop Domenico Sorrentino, the ordinary of Assisi, tried to reassure the readers once more with these lines in the newspaper of the Holy See:  “The understandable pain of those who had felt perplexed (by the interreligious meeting in 1986) should be a fraternal warning to organize things in the future in such a way that the spirit of Assisi” would be in no way comparable to “religious relativism”.

Despite—or because of—this proliferation of statements which all try to be soothing without necessarily managing to be convincing, the gathering in Assisi is still troubling to some Catholics.  Jean-Marie Guénois, in the July 6 issue of Le Figaro, contrasted the article by Cardinal Tauran in L’Osservatore Romano with the remarks by Bishop Bernard Fellay, Superior General of the Society of St. Pius X, in his “Letter to Friends and Benefactors” [link] dated May 1 (see DICI no. 234 dated May 7, 2011):  “But the Assisi revival, even though it has been sweetened and modified, … will inevitably recall the first Assisi meeting, which was scandalous in so many respects;  one of the most noteworthy was the lamentable, distressing spectacle of seeing the Vicar of Christ side by side with a colorful multitude of pagans invoking their false gods and their idols.”  The French journalist acknowledged that the spirit of Assisi was “a state of mind difficult to make acceptable,” recalling that “the risk of syncretism, the mixture of religious convictions, was precisely the criticism and the misgiving—he had not traveled to Assisi 25 years ago—that Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, had formulated with regard to that initiative by John Paul II.”

The petition of six Italian intellectuals dated January 11, 2011, asking Benedict XVI to “flee the spirit of Assisi” (see DICI no. 228 dated January 22, 2011) [link], was taken up in France by the Catholic Renaissance Association, which collected the signatures of more than fifty personages.  In February Roberto de Mattei, one of the Italian intellectuals who started this petition, had justified the measure in these terms:  “The role of every baptized person in the history of the Church was mentioned by Benedict XVI in his catechesis on January 26, 2011.  The pope recalled the mission of ‘two young women of the people, lay women consecrated in virginity, two committed mystics, not in the cloister, but in the midst of the most dramatic reality of the Church and the world of their time’.  He was talking about St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Joan of Arc, ‘perhaps the most representative of those strong women who, at the end of the Middle Ages, fearlessly bore the great light of the Gospel in the complex events of history.  We could liken them to the holy women who stayed on Calvary, close to the Crucified Jesus and to Mary his Mother, while the Apostles had fled and Peter himself had denied him three times.  The Church in that period was going through the profound crisis of the great schism of the West, which lasted almost 40 years.’  During that era, which was as dramatic as the Arian crisis, those two saints were guided by the light of faith more than the theologians and churchmen of the day.  The pope applied to those two laywomen the words of Jesus, ‘who said that God’s mysteries are revealed to those who have a child’s heart, while they remain hidden to the learned and the wise who have no humility (cf. Luke 10:21)’.

“This was the spirit in which we expressed all our perplexities and misgivings about that interreligious meeting in Assisi on October 27, 1986, which was not a Magisterial act, but rather a symbolic gesture, the message of which was not committed to writing or put into words but was entrusted to the fact itself and its image.  An Italian weekly summarized at the time the meaning with the words of Fr. Marie-Dominique Chenu:  ‘This is the official rejection of the axiom that was formerly taught:  outside the Church there is no salvation’ (Panorama, November 2, 1986).

“I was at Assisi that day, and I have photographic documentation of what happened, for example in the Church of St. Peter, where in place of the Most Blessed Sacrament a small statue of Buddha was enthroned on the altar that preserves the relics of the martyr Vittorino, while a banner placed above the same altar read:  ‘I consecrate myself to the law of Buddha.’  As a Catholic, I felt and I continue to feel repugnance to that event, which in my opinion does not deserve to be commemorated except in order to distance oneself from it.  I am certain that Benedict XVI does not want the abuses of that time to be repeated, but we live in a media-saturated society, and the new Assisi meeting is in danger of having the same significance that was attributed to the first by the communications media and therefore by world public opinion, as is happening even now.

“Today we live in a tragic age in which every baptized person must have the supernatural courage and the apostolic candor to defend aloud his own faith, following the example of the saints and without letting oneself be affected by ‘political correctness’, as very often happens even in the ecclesiastical domain.  The consciousness of our faith alone, and no other consideration, has urged us to reject Assisi I and II and to tell the Holy Father respectfully all our concerns about the announcement of a forthcoming Assisi III.”  (Sources: Apic/Imedia/Figaro/CE – DICI no.238 dated July 16, 2011)