The “Spirit of Assisi” is now back in Assisi, where it feels at home. From here it generated in 1986, 30 years ago, during the Cold War. It was a personal audacious initiative of Pope John Paul II. Whilst the World was starting to change, pope Wojtyla had understood how religions could exercise an active role to make peace. Furthermore, he understood how religions could be tempted to sanctify wars and identities. That’s why he invited religious leaders in Assisi not to discuss between themselves, but to pray for peace. It was a profound intuition of a geopolitical stance but also spiritual. John Paul II, in an interview with Messori, affirms regarding religions that: “I will try to show what constitutes for these religions the common essential element, the root in common”. In Assisi the Pope showed how the aspiration to Peace is something that unifies religions, highlighting how prayer is at the root of Peace. It was a turning point. Starting from the prayer, a journey of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue has developed.
That 27th October 1986 was perceived as a historical day, not only by the participants. This was because it proposed something new, awaited by many. It had a huge impact on religions for example, to the Japanese religion that carried out this journey in the following years. It put an end to the stories of secular contrast, isolation, ignorance of the world hemispheres. It put an end to those stories that seemed to last forever, as if they were a fixed destiny. People of different religions, that within a few years were going to be under the influence of globalisation, would have mixed themselves even more in many parts of our planet. No one would have been able to live alone anymore, as if in an island. In the “Spirit of Assisi” has been proposed the art of living together, founded in religion.
The global World needed it then, and it needs it even more today. This is because it needs to face new cohabitations, a widespread juxtaposed identity re-affirmation, terrorism, a re-evaluation of war. In the 90s, there was a need to establish a civilisation of being together beyond the conflict of civilisations and of religions. For this the meeting in Assisi was important, alongside the story that it follows.
In the city of Francis, that 1986, the religions came together one with the other in peace and prayer. Many, of an older “Papist” generation than the Pope, wanted to remind the Pope about the risks of the initiative. Others, fearful, suggested that the meeting between religions in the sign of Peace should stay an isolated fact, not to repeat. Otherwise, there would have been errors or imperfections. Even so, Pope Wojtyla strongly supported the story to continue. The next few years proved him right. The “Spirit of Assisi” spread in a rich and articulate dialogue year after year. The Franciscan families, in the world, talked about the “Spirit of Assisi”. The archbishop Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, declared that the “prophecy of Assisi” was a “heritage of John Paul II to the generations of today and the future”. I think of a Syrian Bishop, Mar Gregorios Ibrahim, that enthusiastically fostered the dialogue between religions, after having participated at Assisi in 1986. He has been kidnapped in 2013 and for years we have not heard any news about him.
Sunday at Assisi, a meeting starts, with the participation of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartolomeo, in the presence of the Italian President Mattarella. Many religious leaders and humanists meet to speak and dialogue about spiritual problems but also about situations of conflict. On Tuesday, Pope Francis will join the invocation of Peace of many believers of all religions on the hill of Assisi, after the prayers according to the different religious traditions in the Sacred Convent, not too far from the tomb of St. Francis. In Assisi we will pray for peace. The prayer can bend all violent designs, whilst strengthening the shouts of people who suffer because of war. We will pray for Aleppo and Syria. And for all the countries at war or threatened by violence.
It won’t be an isolated event. The Italian church will participate to this Prayer for Peace. So are many other churches of the World. In 55 cities in all continents, many religions will also pray for peace on the same day. Our World is too heavily loaded with hate and wars. Prayer is a strength for peace (it is not violent, but humbly strong). St. John Paul II, in 2000, wrote to the Community of Sant’Egidio for the meeting in Lisbon: “I am convinced that the “Spirit of Assisi” is a providential gift for our times. In the diversity of the religious expressions, recognised faithfully as such, being together one with the other is a visible manifestation of the unity of the human family”