Remembering Assisi


The Most Rev. William F. Murphy, bishop of Rockville Centre, has an article in the October 23 issue of America on this theme. The twentieth anniversary of the World Day of Prayer for Peace, when Pope John Paul II gathered various Christian and other religious leaders to Assisi “to be together to pray” for peace, will occur this October 26th (Thursday). Since Bishop Murphy’s article is not online, I would like to quickly provide an excerpt of his description of “three moments” during that day in 1986:

The planners divided the day itself into three “moments.” In the morning, about 64 religious leaders gathered with the pope at the Portiuncula Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi. Here Pope John Paul II welcomed all and set the tone for the day of prayer and fasting – two practices that united us. Then the religious leaders, with members of their own faith, dispersed to select sites in Assisi to pray and reflect in accord with their tradition. Churches and chapels regularly used for the celebration of Mass were not used as worship space for communities other than Christian. Assisi is so rich in beautiful places for meeting that it was easy to find appropriate sites for each religious group.

The Christians assembled in the cathedral church of the Diocese of Assisi. There the pope, flanked by the representative of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople and by Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, led a service of prayer, hymns and reflection. He proclaimed the commitment to peace of all who turned to Jesus, the prince of peace, and asked that he might make them “instruments of his peace.” John Paul II’s conviction was clear: “Peace bears the name of Jesus Christ.” Our prayer to the Father is through Jesus Christ.

In my judgment the pope’s homily that day was one of the most beautiful reflections on peace he ever gave. He focused on John 20, which describes the appearance of the risen Christ in the Upper Room. The Lord shows his disciples the marks of his crucifixion, the pope noted, the marks now glorified that he carries with him into eternity. The pope then applied this image to us as disciples of Jesus, who must bring the marks of our efforts at peacemaking before the Lord on the day of judgment.

By midafternoon rain was falling lightly, and the prefect of the papal household asked me to make a quick decision. The climax of the day was scheduled to be held outdoors in the lower piazza of the Basilica of San Francesco. Would the rain ruin it? Would going inside dissipate some of the impact of our witness? With trepidation, I decided to stay outdoors. So we started walking from the cathedral toward San Francesco.

I have since seen videos that show what a moving moment it was. Believers in all the major religions of the world took to the streets of Assisi from various corners and buildings. We walked in prayer and silence to “be together to pray” outside the tomb of the Poverello. There on an immense stage – the backdrop was a frieze of the word “peace” in multiple languages – Pope John Paul II stood at the center of a semicircle of religious leaders, with Christians on his right and others on his left. Members of each religious tradition had an opportunity to pray in a separate squared-off area. As each religious group prayed, the rest of us on the stage or in the piazza followed the prayers attentively, silently. The prayers of each tradition, which had been ascending to God throughout the day, were now completed through the respectful witness we offered to one another’s prayerful commitment to peace.

Later we broke the fast and adjourned to the great refectory of San Francesco for a simple buffet. Byzantine bishops, the Dalai Lama, the Native American John Pretty on Top, Jains, Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians – all mingled together to share this meal with John Paul II.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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