In the Steps of Saint Francis and Blessed John Paul

Patriarch Gregorios III at Assisi 2011

On 27 October, 2011, Patriarch Gregorios III, together with other Eastern Catholic Patriarchs, Cardinal Antonios (Naguib), Ignatius Joseph III (Younan), Beshara Boutros (Rai) and Baselios Mar Cleemis (Thottunkal), a representative of the Armenian Catholic Church and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad (Twal), was among some three hundred religious leaders going to Assisi as pilgrims of peace at the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first interfaith gathering for peace, initiated by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1986. Together with all the major Christian denominations, including Antiochian, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox, over fifty Muslim representatives attended, alongside Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, a Zoroastrian, a Bahai and delegates of Taoism, Confucianism and traditional religions from Africa and America.

Taking a special train from the Vatican, the pope and his fellow-pilgrims met first at the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels to hear testimonies for peace from eleven representatives of world faiths and humanism and lastly from the Holy Father himself.

Christian leaders, like all religious leaders, he said, must work constantly to help their followers purify their faith and be “an instrument of God’s peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.” Believers with a limited or falsified image of God were partly responsible for the inability of some truth-seekers to find God, he said. Followers of religions should not consider God “as their own property, as if he belonged to them, in such a way that they feel vindicated in using force against others…Yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame,” His Holiness admitted.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had earlier said that the twenty-five years since the first Assisi gathering have included the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States and the Arab Spring democracy movement “which has not put an end to tensions between communities… The place of religions in the changes under way remains ambiguous. We must oppose the deformation of the message and symbols of religion by perpetrators of violence,” the Patriarch said, echoing the concerns of many Christians about the situation of Christians in the Middle East.

The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams told the participants they must help the world see how much wisdom religions have to offer “in the struggle against the foolishness of a world still obsessed with fear and suspicion, still in love with the idea of a security based on defensive hostility, and still capable of tolerating or ignoring massive loss of life among the poorest through war and disease”.

The Lutheran Rev Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, urged religious leaders to do more to assist and guide their young people, who can be the source of new energy for change – such as the Arab Spring – or can express their frustrations through violence. He also urged all religious leaders present to pray and work for peace in Jerusalem, a city sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims and a symbol of ongoing tensions among peoples of Abrahamic faith. “Christians are reminded that the cross is not for crusades but a sign of how God’s love embraces everybody, also the other,” he said, recalling Saint Francis’ dialogue with the Sultan of Egypt.

Hasyim Muzadi, Chairman of the Indonesia-based Nahdlatul Ulama, sent a message saying that people of different faiths must work together on the basis of “hope for the creation of human harmony, justice, prosperity and an improved standard of human life.”

After a “frugal lunch” of rice, vegetables and fruit juice at the Franciscan monastery, the religious leaders went by bus to the Basilica of Saint Francis, in the wake of hundreds of young people, who had walked up the hill in the final stage of their long pilgrimage from various European countries.

Gathered in the piazza in front of the lower cathedral, thirteen leaders affirmed the obligation of love of neighbor, the conviction that true faith never can be used to justify violence, the responsibility religious leaders have to educate their followers to respect others and the need to continue inter-religious dialogue.

Pope Benedict was the last to read his commitment: “Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness life and love!”

After a moment of silence, during which the Eastern Catholic Patriarchs, with Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Armash (Nalbandian) of Damascus and Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan, Mar Gregorios Yohanna (Ibrahim) of Aleppo, said their personal prayers for peace and progress in the Middle East, the Pope and other leaders were handed oil lamps similar to the one that burns before the tomb of Saint Francis. The event ended with the delegates exchanging a sign of peace.

Doves were released and Pope Benedict XVI assured the leaders, “We will continue to meet” and to “be united in this journey of dialogue” for the good of the world.

Twenty-five years ago, the success of the Assisi prayer summit was measured in part by how many warring parties respected Pope John Paul II’s call for a one-day truce. In the 2011 peace day, there was no truce call, not because wars have disappeared from the horizon, but because world harmony is seen as threatened in alarming new ways: poverty, cultural conflicts, unemployment, uncontrolled mechanisms of technology and finance and strong resource competition among peoples in a climate-constrained environment.

Yet there were many hopeful words and prayers at Assisi to counter these dramatic tendencies. As one pastor from the Reformed tradition said at the closing ceremony, a world with more open borders, shrinking distances and better communications should make it easier for people of faith to have an impact.

On the following day, Patriarch Gregorios III and other delegates were granted a papal audience in the frescoed Clementine Hall of the Apostolic Palace, and then had lunch in the atrium of the Vatican audience hall with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State.

Thanking the three hundred delegates who joined him for the peace pilgrimage to Assisi, Pope Benedict XVI said they represent billions of people – believers and nonbelievers — committed to making the world a better place.