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The evolution of the Assisi gathering: to humanism and beyond?

When Pope John Paul II invited world religious leaders to Assisi in 1986, a gathering to pray for peace became a fount for theological controversy. Concerns about syncretism led to refinements of subsequent gatherings in 1993, 1999, 2002, 2006, and an event in October, 2011, commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original summit. The new twist in the most recent gathering involved the inclusion of secular humanists, at Pope Benedict XVI's request, in what had previously been a more narrowly religious event. This essay will briefly examine three things: first, the evolution of the external format of the Assisi Gathering, (1) the contexts that led to those changes, and the attitude toward interreligious prayer implied in them; second, the thought of Benedict XVI regarding interreligious prayer and interreligious dialogue and the reasons why the 2011 gathering took the form it did; and third, the nature and effect of the humanists' participation, which focused on Julia Kristeva.

I. The Evolution of the Assisi Gathering

The most iconic images of the Assisi Gathering hail from the first event, a "World Day of Prayer for Peace," convened by John Paul II in 1986. The United Nations had declared 1986 the International Year of Peace, so the pope invited religious leaders to come to Assisi and invoke from God "the gift of peace," a phrase he subsequently used many times. The announcement caught many by surprise, for everyone in ecumenical or interreligious circles knew that this event would break new ground. (2) John Paul insisted that Christians interpret this Assisi initiative as an organic unfolding of the Second Vatican Council's commitment to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, the same context in which he understood his own interreligious outreach--most prominently his visit to Rome's Great Synagogue in that same year. After some initial skittishness, leaders from twenty-six different religions attended, including some very prominent figures such as the Dalai Lama.

The potential theological ramifications of such a gathering were obvious. John Paul himself insisted that participants certainly could not "pray together," but they could make a "common prayer," meaning that they would be present while others prayed. This would be a sincere attitude of prayer in an atmosphere of mutual respect. (3) This provided a minor gloss on his address to Moroccan Muslim youth the previous year, a speech that concluded with a long prayer. (4) Cardinal Francis Arinze and Bishop Jorge Mejia, among others, published articles in the weeks leading up to the Assisi Gathering to frame the event in its appropriate theological context. Mejia argued that, in the proper sense, Christians cannot "pray together" with nonChristians because all Christian prayer has a trinitarian character. By comparison with adherents of other traditions, Christians share the deepest spiritual commonality with Jews, but even an attempt for Christians and Jews to pray together would involve either offending the Jew or intentionally obscuring the Christians' trinitarian understanding of their common prayer. What Christians and Jews share in faith "would seem to advise a very limited form of common prayer ... [but] a much greater divergence should advise against it." (5)

In a broader interreligious context, Mejia suggested that Christians could share with other monotheists "a common act of acknowledgement" of the oneness of God, even though the expression of such an act might be limited to the common silence of inner adoration. He wrote that "to go further does not seem possible." To be sure, such common silence has real value. Mejia recognized semina verbi in the purest forms of prayer, contemplation, and sacred rites of the world's great religious traditions. From an attentive, respectful, and humble openness, however,

"it does not follow that we have to pray together." Rather, he argued,
   the opposite seems to follow. It is difficult to see how we, as
   Christians, can insert ourselves into the prayer of others. Just as
   it is difficult to see how they can insert themselves into a prayer
   that is specifically Christian. But it still follows, quite
   clearly, that being present when another prays, or when many come
   together to pray, cannot but enrich our own proper experience of
   prayer. (6)

Such an interreligious experience offers a special witness against widespread secularism.

What actually happened in Assisi in 1986 seemed to some observers to lack Mejia's careful nuance. After the opening session, participants went to prearranged locations within the city of Assisi, including churches. In those places, they prayed in their traditional rites, after which they walked in silence to re-gather in the lower piazza of St. Francis. There, one representative of each religion presented a prayer from that tradition, one after another. When these prayers were finished, individuals symbolically declared their commitment to peace by meditating in silence on their own responsibilities to work for peace. This closing sequence stoked suspicions of syncretism, for the format seemed--to some onlookers--to suggest that all these religions were on the same level. Sensationalist accounts in the Italian press intensified this criticism, including the accusation "that African animists had sacrificed chickens on the altar of the Basilica of St. Clare," a charge that local friars consistently denied. (7)

The gathering in 1993 had a much narrower focus. John Paul invited Muslims, Christians, and Jews to gather for a "Day of Prayer for Peace in Europe," in the face of the developing crisis in the Balkans. The small number of Orthodox Christian and Jewish participants also diminished the sense of this gathering as a panEuropean interreligious event; the lion's share of representatives were Catholics or Muslims.

The third gathering, in October, 1999, repeated the scale of the 1986 gathering by inviting 230 representatives of twenty different religions, but it more deliberately attempted to avoid even the slightest appearance of syncretism. For starters, the four-day interreligious summit involved small-group attempts at dialogue. While the first two gatherings were cast particularly as gatherings for prayer, in 1999, Cardinal Arinze's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue sponsored three days of meetings in Rome in which religious leaders discussed paths toward interreligious cooperation and "produced a common declaration rejecting 'fanaticism, extremism and mutual antagonisms which lead to violence."' (8) The summit ended with a trip to Assisi, but the only "prayer in common" was a joint moment of silence in front of the tomb of St. Francis, a moment that religious leaders shared while shielded from television cameras and still photographers. This shared moment in that holy space still rankled some Catholic observers, but, by comparison with the original, the 1999 gathering was far less visible, so it raised fewer concerns. At the closing ceremony back in Rome, John Paul mused aloud about a "cri sis of civilization" and his hope for a "new civilization of love" built on universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty. (9) He reiterated his rejection of the notion that religion causes violence, asserting that waging war in the name of religion is a blatant contradiction and urging religious people to promote a culture of dialogue.

The new millennium brought both further complications and grander gestures. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, published Dominus Iesus in September, 2000, a document that set clearer parameters for theologians who were investigating the relationship between Christianity and non-Christian religions. Some perceived Dominus Iesus as overly restrictive, attempting to rein in theologians who seemingly undervalued the unique deposit of truth in the Christian tradition and in the Catholic Church. However, in that same year, John Paul had famously prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and, in 2001, he became the first pope to visit a mosque, accompanying Syria's 86-year old Grand Mufti into the Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus.

Observers wondered how such gestures harmonized with theological developments stirring in Rome and watched closely when John Paul again convened the Assisi Gathering in 2002. More than 200 religious leaders attended that year, in an event again billed as a "Day of Prayer for Peace." As papal spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls bluntly summarized, "this is not an act of interreligious prayer. Thus there is no danger of religious indifferentism or syncretism." (10) Participants gathered in Piazza San Francesco, and some gave individual testimonies for peace, separated by musical interludes. They then moved to rooms within the Franciscan Sacro Convento to pray according to their own traditions. Christians prayed in the Lower Basilica; non-Christians separated into various meeting rooms. (11) Unlike previous gatherings in which participants fasted, in 2002 they enjoyed a fraternal meal in the Sacro Convento. The event culminated with some Franciscan friars bringing a lighted lamp to John Paul, after which ten representatives of the different religions gathered around the lectern and, in different languages, read parts of the text of their common commitment to peace. This included a rejection of terrorism at the first such gathering since the attacks of September 11, 2001, as well as a commitment to advocacy for the poor and to the promotion of intercultural friendship. (12) Ratzinger's participation was noteworthy. He had been widely quoted as saying that the 1986 gathering "cannot be the model" for such events. In 2002 he remained head of the C.D.F., so his presence in Assisi was considered in some sense an endorsement of the event.

II. Assisi 2011 and the Thought of Pope Benedict XVI

After his election as Bishop of Rome in 2005, Benedict XVI waited over five years before convening the Assisi Gathering himself. The Sant'Egidio community gathered 150 religious leaders for a twentieth-anniversary summit in 2006, but the pope did not attend. He did send a message broadly affirming the initiative, an expression of support for interreligious dialogue that was largely overshadowed by his lecture at Regensburg two weeks later. In 2011, Benedict himself invited 300 religious leaders to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II's initial invitation, flaming the event as a pilgrimage and inviting them to be "pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace." At the time, Austen Ivereigh noted that one of the great challenges facing the 2011 Assisi Gathering was how to make it newsworthy. (13) While the Bishop of Rome, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch were in attendance, the non-Christian attendees lacked equivalent star power. In its format, the two-hour final ceremony involved no interfaith prayer. Delegates observed a brief time of common silence so that they could each invoke the gift of peace or "express an earnest desire for it from deep within themselves." The wording of that formula was a nod to the most novel element of the 2011 gathering, namely, the inclusion of four nonbelievers or secular humanists: Mexican philosopher Guillermo Hurtado, Italian philosopher Remo Bodei, Austrian economist Walter Baier, and, most prominently, the Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva.

The inclusion of the humanists may not have originated with Benedict but with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and his "Courtyard of the Gentiles" project, an initiative to build bridges with atheists and secularists in a modern Europe in which many people grow up entirely unchurched. (14) However, one must consider the presence of the humanists the most distinctively Benedictine stamp on the event. Benedict's desire to engage prominent agnostic or atheist intellectuals is well-known, as is his deep respect for them. His correspondence with Marcello Pera, former president of the Italian Senate, was published as Without Roots, an extensive meditation on Europe's Christian heritage, and his famous dialogue with Jurgen Habermas about the dynamics of secularization is a subject to which we will later briefly return. (15) Benedict's address to the participants in Assisi offered an extended explanation for the invitation of the humanists:
      In addition to the two phenomena of religion and anti-religion,
   a further basic orientation is found in the growing world of
   agnosticism: people to whom the gift of faith has not been given,
   but who are nevertheless on the lookout for truth, searching for
   God. Such people do not simply assert: "There is no God". They
   suffer from his [sic] absence and yet are inwardly making their way
   towards him, inasmuch as they seek truth and goodness.

They are "pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace". They ask questions of both sides. They take away from militant atheists the false certainty by which these claim to know that there is no God and they invite them to leave polemics aside and to become seekers who do not give up hope in the existence of truth and in the possibility and necessity of living by it. But they also challenge the followers of religions not to 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. These people are seeking the truth, they are seeking the true God, whose image is frequently concealed in the religions because of the ways in which they are often practised. Their inability to find God is partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God. So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to us believers, to all believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible. (16)

With these words, Benedict cast the sincere struggles of agnostics as a blessing and a challenge to religious people. He also clearly alluded to a homily he had given in Germany five weeks earlier that went even further. There, Benedict used the parable of the two sons working in the vineyard to underline the authenticity of agnostics and God's closeness to them:
      Translated into the language of the present day, this statement
   might sound something like this: Agnostics, who are constantly
   exercised by the question of God, those who long for a pure heart
   but suffer on account of their sin, are closer to the kingdom of
   God than believers whose life of faith is "routine" and who regard
   the church merely as an institution, without letting it touch their
   hearts, or letting the faith touch their hearts.

      These words should make all of us stop and reflect, in fact they
   should disturb us. (17)

This acknowledgement demonstrates the breadth of Benedict's understanding of what constitutes "religion" but also greatly changes the flavor of the Assisi Gathering, perhaps symbolized by Benedict's probably conscious omission of the phrase "Spirit of Assisi," a phrase that many ecumenical and interreligious activists joyfully embrace. In previous years, the gathering was essentially spiritual--in different formats, participants came to pray. Michael Barnes, S. J., wondered aloud whether this past witness of prayerful reflection has now "given way to a more theological debate about the meaning of religion itself." Has Benedict jettisoned powerful symbolism in favor of "yet more routine speechifying which might just as easily, and more appropriately, have taken place in a philosophy of religion seminar?" (18) Instead of coming to pray, had they instead come to ponder?

Assisi 2011 deliberately avoided common prayer, to be sure, but such criticism is a little harsh; if peacefully gathering 200 different religious leaders has become routine, students of history should gratefully count their blessings. More to the point, the format for 2011 reflected a consistent commitment of Benedict. From his first sermon as pope, he coupled interreligious dialogue and intercultural dialogue. In 2006, he folded the Pontifical Institute for lnterreligious Dialogue into the Pontifical Institute for Culture, a union that proved short-lived. This pairing reflects both philosophical and practical commitments. On the philosophical side stands Benedict's much-discussed 2008 assertion that "interreligious dialogue, in the strict sense of the term, was not possible." (19) Interreligious dialogue, sensu stricto, would involve "putting one's own faith into parentheses," a ghastly impossibility for a Christian interlocutor. Here, Benedict implicitly affirmed that interreligious dialogue cannot be an attempt to reach a mutually agreeable settlement between dialogue partners, much less a lowest common denominator or religious Esperanto.

Catholic participants in dialogue clearly cannot bracket their claims to the truth and shelve them for the duration of the encounter, but, even if this were possible, Benedict prioritized the practical side of interreligious dialogue. He attempted to reorient these encounters toward applied questions of mutual cooperation and respect between cultures and religions, reciprocity, human rights, and religious freedom, rather than questions of speculative theology or spiritual growth. Despite the comment that interreligious dialogue is "impossible," he did consistently employ and commend the term "interreligious dialogue" when it is used either in this more practical or in a more general sense. In the harvest of dialogue, the concrete questions of how communities can co-exist in tolerance while robustly asserting their competing truth-claims represent the low-hanging fruit. Thus, Benedict did not recommend restricting "open and sincere dialogue" to ecumenical dialogue or interreligious dialogue, but he opened the door to all people of good will, with the hope that the resulting mutual understanding would give rise to conditions for a better future for everyone. (20)

For their actions to be effective, believers of all traditions must grow in dialogue and mutual esteem. (21) Precisely here unbelievers have an important contribu tion to make. No one questions Benedict's convictions about the deposit of truth in the Christian tradition, but if one may import a bellicose image to describe a peaceful gathering, adding atheists into the mix adds another layer to the attack on religious tribalism inherent in such an event as the Assisi Gathering. The engagement transcends believers who face other believers who do not accept their truth-claims; the engagement integrates those who accept none of the claims at the table wholeheartedly, calling all present to self-purification and to some sort of mutually acceptable discourse and grounds for living together.

Self-purification and a common language for discourse return to one of the more prominent themes in Benedict's theology, the relationship between faith and reason. Inaugurating the Courtyard of the Gentiles initiative in March, 2011, he summed up, "I believe deeply that the encounter of faith and reason enables us to find ourselves." (22) This encounter strengthens the ethical foundation for social and political choices, as the two-way interaction between faith and reason provides to each a mutual corrective. (23) If this encounter between faith and reason occurs in the context of an encounter between believers and nonbelievers, all involved may find "feelings of fraternity, over and above our individual convictions, yet not denying our differences." (24) In an interesting choice of words in his Courtyard of the Gentiles address vis-a-vis the Assisi Gathering, Benedict invited the nonbelievers to spend some time in the Cathedral of Notre Dame and pray--to let their deepest feelings rise toward the unknown God.

III The Participation of Secular Humanists

If Benedict's larger goal in some measure involved building an alliance of sincere agnostics and committed believers to counterbalance the fanaticism of both religious fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists, how did the humanists themselves understand their participation in Assisi, and what effect did it have? Kristeva's brief remarks could never be characterized as "routine speechifying," except insofar as they bore the density that marks nearly all her prose. She began with the simple question, "What is humanism?" addressing the raison d'etre for the humanists' inclusion in this pilgrimage. "Humanism is a process of perpetual reestablishment," which attempts to promote a universal ethics and universal solidarity by constantly reconsidering "the moral codes formed in the course of history" and "renewing them to meet" the needs of changing societies. Since "humanism awakens the desire for freedom in men and women, it teaches us to" care for others, especially the most vulnerable. Kristeva welcomed the fact that today we "are capable of reassessing in complete transparency the religiosity inherent in the human being." We know that humankind has the means to destroy itself and planet earth. We do not know whether religions, beliefs, or ideologies will lead to this destruction or whether they will lead to peace--therefore, the "refounding of humanism is neither a providential dogma nor a spiritual game, it is a dare"--to reevaluate ourselves with objectivity. (25)

Such a humanism does not belittle religion, as one sees in an interview with Kristeva published in This Incredible Need to Believe. (26) There, Kristeva addressed Habermas and Benedict, who each in their own way recognized the need for some higher authority that could unify and orient modern democratic society, some normative presuppositions on which to ground rational law in a secular state. Kristeva deflected such calls, suggesting that, instead of rehashing tired and well-worn debates about the relationship between reason and faith, one could tired such a stable foundation in "the Freudian discovery of the unconscious." (27) A concern for the sacred runs through all of Kristeva's work because of the relationship between the sacred and the imaginary. (28) This relationship has led her to describe the clash of religions as a surface phenomenon. The true clash lies in the rift between those who want to know that God is unconscious and those who would rather not know this, particularly because, in not knowing, a person can revel in the apparent, in the virtual. By recognizing in every person the pre-religious need to believe, one can confront trends toward religious violence, the management of the human species via technology, and much adolescent malaise--and come to a deeper knowledge of the complexity of inner experience. Advancing this knowledge, all of it oriented toward the practical challenges facing societies today, is humanism. (29)

In Assisi, Kristeva articulated foundations of humanism consistent with threads in her widely varied writings throughout her career. One of these is the importance of "dialogism," or intertextuality, which aims not to arrive at a finite point of understanding and definition but to strive toward harmony through a modality of transformation. The norm in dialogism is a condition of constant rupture, with few moments of agreement or fixity; when these occur, they do not bring dialogue to a conclusion but always permit the possibility of shifts and changes in ideas. (30) This affection for unsettled dialogue and constant inquiry leads to her admiration of the personalism of John Paul II. His interminable questioning of the subject, including a person's drives and need to believe, opens the way to the endless recomposition that Kristeva desired, the perpetual return to self-assessment that she commended in Assisi. For this reason, to her agnostic, humanist, and atheist friends, Kristeva cried, "Don't be afraid of Christianity, and together we won't fear religions!" (31) This cry comes from the depths of someone who has carefully engaged the Christian tradition in its beauty and its strength, yet not come to faith. These are the nonbelievers with whom Benedict urged the faithful to engage in dialogue--for this dialogue can benefit the larger world.

Among nonbelievers, Kristeva has presented an obvious choice for one of Benedict's dialogue partners. At the level of the unconscious, not sociology or anthropology, she considered the pre-religious need in every human person to believe to be an observable fact. In a sense, all are "seekers" by their nature. Further, she shared Benedict's appreciation for the power of language and the role it can play in healing a broken subject. (32) But, beyond this, Kristeva's thought meshes conveniently with Benedict's because she has not treated Christianity as any other religion like the rest. Kristeva has engaged the Christian tradition in greater depth than any other but never presents this fact as an accident of history, a simple consequence of her birth to Christian parents and education in Europe rather than elsewhere. On the contrary, she has clearly and consistently appreciated the unique resources in Christian art, music, liturgy, and ritual to sublimate human malaise. (33)

While Mary-Jane Rubenstein's scathing review of This Incredible Need to Believe exaggerated the role Islam plays in the larger scheme of the book, Rubenstein correctly assessed Kristeva's assertion of a hierarchy in the capacity of different belief systems to address the fundamental drives and challenges revealed by the Freudian discovery of the unconscious. At the bottom of this hierarchy lies the unloving legislator of Islam, who falls short of the kindly God of Aristotle's Metaphysics, who still fails to resemble the loving God of Christians, clearly the best God of all. (34) Freud argued that societies are founded upon the incest taboo and the murder of the father. The genius of Christianity is that it delivers a beaten child who is the punishing father, relieving both "the incestuous guilt that weights upon the desire for the sovereign Father ... and encouraging virile identification ... with this tortured man." (35) "No other religion, even that of the Greek gods, encouraged the experience of sublimation quite so effectively as the Son-Father beaten to death." (36) While Kristeva did not articulate any preference for Christianity in Assisi, her inclusion certainly helps to dispel any lingering suspicions of syncretism or neutrality regarding the comparative value of the various religious traditions present. Observers familiar with Kristeva's writings cannot fail to notice that, in Assisi, the spokesperson for the nonbelievers bore a decided favoritism for the host tradition, including the assumption that Christian humanists are best prepared to see the vulnerability in themselves and to embrace solidarity with the most vulnerable in society.

IV. Conclusions

What do these events suggest about the future of the Assisi Gathering and interfaith encounters like it? The resignation of Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis obviously jumbles the question. The first months of Francis's pontificate have been an adventurous time for Vatican watchers, as his candor and pastoral style have won the hearts of many across the world, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He shocked many observers of the conclave when his first act on the balcony of St. Peter's was to invite the faithful in the square to pray for him. This act was not unprecedented in his ministry. In On Heaven and Earth, he recounted a visit to a meeting with Evangelicals in Argentina. The Evangelical pastor asked then-archbishop Bergoglio if he would allow the Evangelicals to pray for Bergoglio and his ministry. Bergoglio accepted and knelt down to receive their prayers, while 7,000 Evangelicals prayed on his behalf. Some Catholics interpreted this as an act of apostasy, a charge to which Bergoglio responded with the gentle frankness that has marked the first stages of his papal ministry: "Even with an agnostic, with his doubt, we can look up together to find transcendence; each one praying according to his tradition. What's the problem?" (37)

Beginning in 2009, Bergoglio regularly invited members of other faiths to offer prayers at the traditional Te Deum masses and was pleased that their participation increased over time. On Heaven and Earth recounts dialogues between Bergoglio the any reasoned response to such violence ('they' won't listen anyway, because they can't), and 3) obscuring nearly every one of its causes. One is left believing that the rims in the French banlieues, the protests in Denmark, the IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq have nothing to do with military, historic, political, or economic factors; they are simply the function of a vast Muslim father-complex" (p. 668; emphases in original). and Rabbi Abraham Skorka on a diverse range of topics facing society and believers, and Bergoglio expresses gratitude that these were not merely abstract discussions. Skorka invited Bergoglio twice to pray and speak in Skorka's synagogue, an invitation Bergoglio happily accepted. One could suggest that Francis considers theologically nuanced discourse about whether we are actually "praying together" to be rather irrelevant. At the very least, such discussions are not his primary signpost in discerning appropriate pastoral action.

One should note that Bergoglio's experience of interreligious dialogue is largely confined to relationships with Jews. The cardinals did not elect an Asian or African pope who might be expected to give interreligious dialogue a higher priority. Francis's early travels have not highlighted the theme. His trip to Lampedusa (Italy) begged God's forgiveness for indifference and ill treatment of immigrants coming through that island. Many of these immigrants are not Christian, but the pope framed the event not as an issue of interreligious relations but as a failure of universal kinship, a failure to attend to the question, "Where is your brother?" (Gen. 4:9). (38) He did note that the Mass coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, saying that "the Church is at your side as you seek a more dignified life for yourselves and your families," but added nothing beyond this.

While his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day in July, 2013, did not involve any ecumenical or interreligious prayer services, this absence is not extraordinary-neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI made a habit of including such prayer services in their itinerary for World Youth Day in the past. Francis's most noteworthy initiative in interreligious relations came in his message to Muslims for the end of Ramadan. Typically, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue sends Muslims a message of good wishes for 'Eid al-Fitr, although John Paul II once chose to write the message himself. In Francis's first Ramadan as Bishop of Rome, he signed the message personally and sent it "as an expression of esteem and friendship for all Muslims, especially those who are religious leaders." (39) Such a greeting of respect does not pass any judgment on the content of others' beliefs; rather, "we simply seek to share their joy." The pope recalled his own words to the Diplomatic Corps four months earlier when he called for an intensification of the dialogue with Islam and appreciated the presence of civil and religious leaders from the Muslim-majority world at the Mass inaugurating his ministry. The cardinals could have chosen someone with more direct experience of interreligious dialogue, but they clearly chose someone who considers it a priority and who will approach gatherings for ecumenical or interreligious prayer with a less-circumscribed and loving touch.

Of course, Francis now sits in a cathedra in which tradition and precedent wield an almost irresistible force. Much of Benedict's pontificate consisted of repeating gestures first made by John Paul, stamping them as part of broader papal tradition, not as novelties to be ignored. Which of Benedict's gestures will Francis choose to repeat? Social media have delighted in the marked differences between Francis's style and that of his predecessor, but the course Francis will chart on issues of dialogue remains quite unclear. Still, the trajectory of the last twenty-five years permits some theoretical and practical conclusions.

On the level of theory, incorporating professed atheists into a gathering traditionally devoted to prayer obviously stretches the boundaries of what constitutes religion. Benedict himself mused briefly about this question in his address at Assisi, addressing the post-Enlightenment critique that religion causes violence by fueling hatred between peoples. Benedict argued, as did participants at past gatherings in Assisi, that violence was the antithesis of true religion, but he asked honestly, "how do you know what the true nature of religion is?" (40) He then backed down from the question, commending it to participants in interreligious dialogue and contented himself with stating clearly what Christianity is with regard to questions of force and violence.

Here, and in other developments throughout Benedict's pontificate, those who were most alarmed by Dominus lesus have seen that Benedict became less interested in drawing boundaries to define what "religion" is, whether Christian or otherwise, and more interested in which potential partners can reap beneficial fruit for the human family simply by sitting at the table. The earthiness of Francis's first few weeks as pontiff--including washing the feet of a Muslim woman in his Holy Thursday Mass in a detention facility--suggests that Francis will approach the question of who belongs in the dialogue with creativity and openness.

In a related theoretical question, Assisi 2011 also shed light on the meaning of dialogue for Benedict. Like his predecessor, he gathered spiritual leaders from across the religious spectrum, but, unlike John Paul and despite lingering questions about whether dialogue is even possible sensu stricto, Benedict's primary understanding of this interreligious encounter was dialogue, not prayer. Rejecting prayer as the primary metaphor does not mean that the engagement is merely academic or cerebral, devoid of spiritual value, but it does frame the event in a different light. Further, in Assisi 2011, Benedict cast this dialogue as a journey, saying that humanists are sincere seekers on a common journey toward truth with believers. Perhaps in the future, might one speak about Christians and secular humanists on the road to Emmaus? Francis has admitted that he does not attempt to proselytize or convert atheists but cultivates mutual respect, which builds to "esteem, affection, and friendship." (41) This sharing can help each person overcome his or her own "vileness," (42) language that resonates deeply with Benedict's off-stated desire for reason and faith to purify each other.

In terms of practical consequences, Benedict was deeply concerned about the European scene and enthusiastically supported Ravasi's Courtyard of the Gentiles project. Those who followed Benedict's travels to Great Britain in 2010 and Germany in 2011 saw him depict Europe as a place in which religious voices, despite their cultural icons that tower over historic public squares, struggle to find significant volume in contemporary discourse. This basic sense of the religious environment shaped his understanding of the nature and purpose of interreligious dialogue. Benedict at times encouraged Islam as a dialogue partner so that believing Christians and Muslims could offer a common witness against secularism, but the truly important encounter for him seemed to be secularism. He wanted to engage unbelievers, carrying forward John Paul's "new evangelization," and, thus, the engagement with believers from other religious traditions provided a means to that end, not an end in itself the way it might be in other parts of the world.

While Francis seems unlikely to withdraw papal support for outreach like Ravasi's, the early weeks of his pontificate suggest that the concerns of the poor and the masses will drive his consideration of the nature and purpose of dialogue. Insofar as engagement with unbelievers remains a dialogue of cultural elites, Francis's heart will not be behind it. Insofar as it breaks the temptation toward remaining self-referential that encrusts much of Christian life today, Francis may welcome dialogue with unbelievers as an attempt to "let Jesus out" of the stuffy rooms in which institutionally minded Christians keep him. (43)

The most obvious practical consequence of Assisi 2011 is that the Spirit of Assisi is here to stay. Some noted a shortage of enthusiasm on Benedict's part in calling and preparing for Assisi 2011, as well as a general lack of prayerfulness at the gathering itself. In any case, Benedict used the twenty-fifth anniversary of the original Assisi Gathering to confirm his predecessor's initiative as part of a larger papal tradition, an event the new pope is justifiably expected to continue. Benedict's decision to convene the Assisi Gathering stoked the fire for similar smaller-scale events around the world, in their different formats, as valid expressions of a common human desire for peace and a willingness to work together for it.

Certainly, "interreligious prayer" still demands care and nuance in its format. While Benedict's participation in Assisi 2011 endorsed such services in a general sense, the revised format obviously signals caution and restriction in how other groups organize or participate in such events. Perhaps the extent of this caution implicitly questions the value of the former distinction between "praying together" and "coming together to pray," precisely because it goes so far as almost to avoid the latter. Yet, if one recalls the beautiful images of Benedict in reverent silence in Istanbul's Blue Mosque, one sees clearly that the potential for confusion about whether common prayer occurred did not merely lie in the grand gestures of his more theatrical predecessor. That day, Benedict preserved the distinction between "praying together" and "coming together to pray," because he and Mustafa Cagrici did not make any prostrations together, nor did they speak any prayers in each other's presence. However, if Benedict inaugurated the Courtyard of the Gentiles initiative by inviting nonbelievers to stop in the Cathedral of Notre Dame to pray, arguing that he and his gracious Turkish host were consciously and intentionally not praying together may become an exercise in terminological gymnastics. At the very least, and regardless of what Francis does, any taboos about religious leaders' reverently visiting each other's holy sites, visibly spending time in prayer in each other's presence, and reverently respecting the other's time in prayer, have, from the Catholic standpoint, been irrevocably shattered. For this, St. Francis of Assisi, himself shaped by his visit with the Sultan, would be very grateful.

* I am grateful to Thomas Michel, S.J., and Michael Perry, O.F.M., current Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, for sharing their experiences of the Assisi Gathering in personal conversations. Their insightful comments helped much in the preparation of this essay.

(1) The event has never been officially dubbed the "Assisi Gathering." I use this term as a catch-all for the various interreligious encounters in that city discussed in this essay, each with its own proper title mentioned in due course.

(2) Kevin McDonald, "Power of Prayer: Ecumenism and the Spirit of Assisi,'" The Tablet, October 22, 2011 ; available at

(3) Cited in ibid. John Paul II's General Audience of October 22, 1986, is available only in Italian and Spanish; available at father/john .paul_ii/audiences/1986/index_.en.htm.

(4) John Paul introduced this prayer as a personal invocation in the presence of Muslim youth. "Address of John Paul II to Young Muslims," Morocco, August 19, 1985, while on an Apostolic Journey to Togo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Zaire, Kenya, and Morocco; available at htlp://www, vatican .va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1985/august/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19850819 giovani-stadio-casablanca_en.html.

(5) Jorge Mejia, "To Be Together to Pray: A Theological Reflection on the World Day of Prayer for Peace," L 'Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, October 13, 1986, p. 8.

(6) Ibid., emphasis in original.

(7) john L. Allen, Jr., "Benedict a Pope of Seconds in Assisi," National Catholic Reporter, October 28, 2011, p. 14.

(8) John L. Allen, Jr., "Vatican Offers Symbols of Harmony," National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999, p. 6.

(9) pope John Paul II, "Our Task: Promote Culture of Dialogue," L 'Osservatore Romano. English Weekly Edition, November 3, 1999, p. 1.

(10) John L. Allen, Jr., "Together for Prayer Despite Debate: Assisi Interfaith Effort Runs into Dominus lesus,'" National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002, p. 10.

(11) "program of the Day," L 'Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, January 30, 2002, p. 3.

(12) "Commitment to Peace," L 'Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, January 30, 2002, pp. 1-2.

(13) Austen Ivereigh, "What Assisi Has Lost," America, November 14, 2011; available at http://www,

(14) Allen, "Benedict a Pope of Seconds," p. 14.

(15) See Pope Benedict XVI and Marcello Pera, Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam (New York: Basic Books, 2006); and Jurgen Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI, Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2006).

(16) Pope Benedict XVI, "The Tree God Is Accessible to All," L'Osservatore Romano, English Weekly Edition, November 2, 2011, p. 9.

(17) Pope Benedict XVI, "German Visit: Freiburg Mass," Origins 41 (October 13, 2011): 304.

(18) Barnes raised this question rhetorically but then dismissed it; Ivereigh cited the comment and misrepresented it as Barnes's position on the event. See Michael Barnes, "Symbol and Reality--Repetition with a Difference," Thinking Faith: The Online Journal of the British Jesuits, November 1, 2011, available at; and Ivereigh, "What Assisi Has Lost."

(19) In context, Benedict made the statement in an introduction to a newly published book by Marcello Pera and affirmed Pera's position. While consistent with Benedict's thought elsewhere, many observers, including Vatican spokesperson Frederico Lombardi, S. J., interpreted this rather pointed statement as a deliberate attempt to generate interest in a friend's book. For two interpretations of the discussion surrounding this comment, see John L. Allen, Jr., "Benedict on Interreligious Dialogue: How Religions Talk with Each Other," National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2008, available at blogs/all-things-catholic/benedict-interreligious-dialogue-how-religions-talk-each-other; and see Tom Heneghan, "Confusion over Pope's Letter Saying Interfaith Talks Impossible," Faith World. November 24, 2008, available at talks-impossible. For the Italian original of Benedict's comments, see Pope Benedict XVI, "II Dialogo Tra Le Religioni None Possibile: La Fede Non Si Pub Mettere Tra Parentesi," Corriere Della Sera, November 23, 2008; available at benedetto._folcee2c-b93f-lldd-bb2c-00144f02aabc.shtml. For an E.T., see John L. Allen, Jr., "Interreligious Dialogue Impossible, Pope Says, but Intercultural Dialogue Good," National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2008; available at

(20) John Borelli, "In the Spirit of Assisi," The Tablet, September 23, 2006, p. 7; available at http://

(21) Pope Benedict XVI, "German Visit; Meeting with Muslim Leaders," Origins 41 (October 6, 2011): 286.

(22) Pope Benedict XVI, "Address to Courtyard of the Gentiles," Origins 40 (April 7, 2011): 698.

(23) Pope Benedict XVI, "Great Britain Visit: Westminster Hall Address," Origins 40 (September 30, 2010): 266.

(24) Benedict, "Address to Courtyard of the Gentiles," p. 698.

(25) Julia Kristeva, "From the Age of Suspicion to the Age of Daring," L'Osservatore Romano. English Weekly Edition, November 2, 2011, p. 14.

(26) While the most extended reflection on religion as such in the Kristevan corpus, she never defined "religion" in the book, focusing instead on the meaning of "belief." Belief is "the strong sense of an unshakable certainty, sensory plenitude, and ultimate truth the subject experiences as an exorbitant kind of more-than-life" (Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, tr. Beverley Bie Brabic [New York: Columbia University Press, 2009 (orig.: Bisogno di credere: Unpunto di vista laico [Rome: Donzelli Editore, 2006])], p. 7).

(27) Ibid., p. 26. Grounding such discourse in the Freudian discovery of the unconscious certainly does not banish religious voices from the public square. For one example, see Erin K. Wilson's use of Kristeva's notion of dialogism as a resource for integrating religious traditions in the larger discourse about global justice: Erin K. Wilson, "Beyond Dualism: Expanded Understandings of Religion and Global Justice," International Studies Quarterly 54 (September, 2010): 733-754.

(28) Christina Kkona, "The Ambivalence of the Sacred in Julia Kristeva," Philosophy Today 56 (May, 2012): 175.

(29) Kristeva, This Incredible Need, pp. 24-25.

(30) See her essay, "Word, Dialogue, and Novel," in Julia Kristeva., The Kristeva Reader (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), especially p. 58.

(31) Kristeva, This Incredible Need, p. 106.

(32) At times, Kristeva's reverence for language has extended so far that she seems to have assumed that literature holds greater therapeutic potential than religious traditions themselves. Examining Kristeva's treatment of the aesthetics of forgiveness in the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, William W. Young III summarized: "There is, on her view, a necessary passage through language, and as exemplified above, in particular through the symbolic discourse of Christiauity, which establishes a way toward nonviolent relations, and a welcoming of alterity within oneself. It is only in literary representation, through language, that such hospitable subjectivity emerges" (William W. Young III, "Healing Religion: Aesthetics and Analysis in the Work of Kristeva and Clement," Cross Currents 55 [Summer, 2005]: 155). On this point, Young contrasted Kristeva with Catherine Clement, whose appreciation for the therapeutic potential of music led her to question the valorization of language found in much of the Western tradition.

(33) An example that Kristeva provided from the realm of liturgical music suffices. Reflecting on Mozart's Mass in C Minor, she observed that, "in effect ... Christ leads to Mozart: that Christianity refines suffering into joy" (Kristeva, This Incredible Need, p. 84). Within the Christian sphere, most of her writings particularly commend Catholic liturgical and devotional practices, as well as the spiritual writings of such Catholic saints as Teresa of Avila.

(34) See Mary-Jane Rubenstein's review of This Incredible Need to Believe by Julia Kristeva, Modern Theology 26 (October, 2010): 667. Rubenstein accused Kristeva of sloppy generalizations throughout, reading the core of Kristeva's argument as that "the problem with the world today is Islam, and the solution is Christianity" (p. 666). Rubenstein skewered Kristeva's analysis with even sharper rhetoric: "Because it fails to murder him, Islam is stuck in perpetual obedience to a hyperphallic father.... Because of Islam's non-deicidal rigidity, Kristeva declares that dialogue within the tradition is as futile as dialogue with it.... This wholesale refusal to recognize the theo-philosophical heritage of Islam has the baffling and stultifying effects of 1) displacing all religiously sanctioned violence onto Muslims, 2) rendering fu

(35) Kristeva, This Incredible Need, pp. 57-58; emphases in original.

(36) Ibid., p. 60.

(37) Pope Francis (Jorge Bergoglio) and Abraham Skonka, Sobre el Cieloy la Tierra (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2010); E. T.: Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka, On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Random House, 2013), pp. 220-221.

(38) Pope Francis, "Homily at the 'Arena" Sports Camp"; see francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130708_omelia-lampedusa__en, html.

(39) "Message of Pope Francis to Muslims throughout the World for the End of Ramadan ('Id al-Fitr)"; see cesco_20130710_musulmani-ramadan_en.html.

(40) Benedict, "The True God Is Accessible to All," p. 8.

(41) Francis, On Heaven and Earth, p. 12.

(42) Ibid, p. 13.

(43) Metaphors from Cardinal Bergoglio's speech to the cardinals before the conclave.
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Author:Welle, Jason
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
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Date:Jun 22, 2013
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