|The major Vatican
story last week was the Jan. 24 summit of spiritual leaders at Assisi,
where participants opposed the manipulation of religion to justify violence.
With Sikh clerics, Muslim imams, Jewish rabbis and Catholic cardinals lighting
candles and embracing one another, the day projected a strong image of
Below I’ll voice a couple
of criticisms. Having stood under the prayer tent at Assisi and watched
things unfold, however, my fundamental evaluation is positive. In the post-Sept.11
world, all messages of peace are welcome.
As with any big happening,
what you saw on stage was only part of the experience. The warp and woof
of such events includes a series of smaller and less public moments that
are also part of the story.
The morning of Jan. 25,
for example, the U.S. embassy to the Holy See hosted a breakfast for American
participants at Assisi. Guests included Robert Schuller, pastor of the
Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, whose weekly TV service
“Hour of Power” has an audience estimated at 30 million; George Freeman,
general secretary of the World Methodist Council; and Denton Lotz, general
secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. A few of us in the press were
There was, it must be
said, a smidgen of political spin. Rabbi Arthur Schneier, head of the Appeal
of Conscience Foundation in New York and a good friend of Cardinal Theodore
McCarrick of Washington, D.C., claimed that Assisi “showed what the United
States is all about in fighting terrorism around the world.”
The main purpose of the
breakfast, however, was to announce a State Department grant of $60,000
to the Sant’Egidio Community, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic
church, to support a project in Kosovo that teaches reconciliation skills
to Serbian Orthodox and Albanian Muslim children. The idea is to raise
a generation that knows something other than ethnic hatred.
U.S. ambassador to the
Holy See James Nicholson gave a brief talk praising Sant’Egidio, and then
Claudio Mario Betti of Sant’Egidio thanked Nicholson. Deliberately framing
a contrast with the bloody events of Sept. 11, Betti said the spirit of
Assisi is to allow ourselves to be “hijacked by God.”
(The grant, by the way,
illustrates the limits of ideological labels as a means of predicting behavior.
Nicholson, a former head of the Republican National Committee and a Bush
appointee, is what would conventionally be described as “conservative.”
The anti-death penalty, pro-debt relief Sant’Egidio movement, born of the
leftist Roman student energies of 1968, is seen as “liberal.” Yet that
has not blinded either to the possibilities for collaboration).
The grant capped a very
good week for Sant’Egidio. They saw in the Assisi summit an endorsement
of their efforts to keep inter-religious dialogue alive over the last 15
After John Paul II’s
first inter-religious gathering in Assisi in 1986, there was a torrent
of criticism from the Catholic right, charging that the event promoted
syncretism and relativism. After the controversy, it became clear that
the Vatican was not going to pick up the ball, and so Sant’Egidio did.
Every year since, the community has sponsored a major inter-religious gathering
“in the spirit of Assisi.”
On the way out of the
press center in Assisi at the end of the day Thursday, I ran into the Sant’Egidio
brain trust and shouted a hearty bravissimi, an Italian way of saying
“great job.” One of them stopped me and said, “I’m glad someone understands.
You know what this means? Today, dialogue is less illegitimate. That’s
It’s something indeed.
Back to the breakfast.
After Nicholson announced the grant, the guys from Sant’Egidio got a brief
crash course in American democracy. Guests were going around the room making
short remarks, and Lotz, the Baptist official, used his turn to complain
that taxpayer dollars were going to a “sectarian group.” He argued that
separation of church and state was the best insurance against a “clash
Nicholson, ever the diplomat,
thanked Lotz for his words, then gently reminded him the money was going
to schools in Kosovo and not to Sant’Egidio.
Schuller offered his
impressions of Assisi.
“The key words are humility
and honesty,” Schuller said. “I never saw them reflected so sincerely in
any religious gathering I’ve ever attended.” In what was perhaps an unintended
play on words, Schuller said Assisi was “a day of worship, not pontificating.”
“Religions usually come
together on the assumption that they have all the answers, and that the
others should be converted,” Schuller said. “Thus we get collisions rather
“At Assisi, the leadership
did not embarrass or humiliate any other religion. As a Christian and a
follower of Christ, I believe Christ was honored yesterday.”
Finally, Monsignor Frank
Dewane, an American and under-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Peace
and Justice, gave an impressive impromptu talk summarizing what had been
said, picking up especially on Schuller’s comments about honesty and humility.
“I don’t think you can
get to the second if you don’t have the first,” he said.
I think Dewane’s comments
helped put a human face on the Vatican for the others present, not always
the easiest thing to do.
* * *
While the pope and the
other religious leaders were sending signals in Assisi, the work of carrying
dialogue forward was being carried out at lower levels around the world,
in the trenches, where real change is always forged.
One example took place
in Rome, at the Second International Conference for Rectors of Roman Catholic
Seminaries, sponsored by the Cardinal Suenens Center of John Carroll University
in Cleveland. The conference’s purpose was to examine how inter-religious
dialogue and inculturation can become part of seminary formation. The intuition
is that tomorrow’s pastors and chancery officials need to have a personal
commitment to dialogue if it is to thrive.
Cardinal Godfried Danneels
of Belgium, a successor to Suenens in more senses than one, was among the
Because of other commitments,
I was able to drop in on the conference only on its last day, Saturday,
Jan. 26. I found the discussion enormously stimulating. I joined a session
on Dominus Iesus where participants from India, Zambia and Russia
talked about how the document was received in their environments. While
reaction from India was negative, the Russian Orthodox, who tend to be
traditional doctrinally, strongly approved.
The real treat of the
day was the opportunity to have lunch with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the
Peruvian theologian whose 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation, gave
a name to the liberation theology movement in Latin American Catholicism.
I have long admired Gutiérrez, and presented him with an inscribed
copy of my biography of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
A key principle for Gutiérrez
has always been coupling theological reflection with a lived commitment
to the poor. He spends much of his time in Rimac, a Lima slum, where he
founded the Bartolomé de las Casas Center.
never been a full-time faculty member of a university theology department.
At lunch I pointed out that in this way he’s like Hans urs von Balthasar,
a 20th century Swiss theologian associated with conservative
reaction against the Second Vatican Council, who also did his theological
work largely outside the academy.
a twinkle in his eye, said that may be “the only thing we have in common.”
During a session on inculturation,
Gutiérrez said dialogue must not simply be a matter of elites meeting
elites, but it must bring the poor into view. He asked, for example, why
inter-religious dialogue in India never seems to include the 200 million
oppressed Dalit people, who have a faith tradition separate from Hinduism.
a member of the Dominican order, teaches for six weeks twice a year at
Notre Dame. I hope he will be heard by those responsible for organizing
dialogues at all levels, so that they will not be deaf to the cry of the
I should add that Gutiérrez
and I were joined at lunch by Passionist Fr. Donald Senior of Chicago’s
Catholic Theological Union, Jesuit Fr. Joseph Daoust of the Jesuit School
of Theology at Berkeley, and Jesuit Fr. Daniel Madigan of Rome’s Gregorian
University. I also had the chance to lunch separately with Fr. Donald Cozzens,
whose book The Changing Face of the Priesthood offers an honest, important
look at priestly life today. Anyone tempted to despair about the future,
especially about the kind of preparation our future ministers are receiving,
should spend some time around these guys. It’s a definite pick-me-up.
* * *
A final word about Assisi.
Despite my positive reaction
to the day, two aspects remain troubling. The first was the absence of
women. I estimated the total number of women among the 200-some delegates
at no more than 20, or 10 percent. Granted that the Vatican can’t dictate
to other religions who makes up their delegations, the imbalance was still
striking, especially on the Catholic side.
The second was the pope-centered
nature of the day. John Paul II occupied the center car on the “prayer
train” from the Vatican to Assisi. It was he who invited everyone, he who
occupied center stage, he who spoke last. I suspect many of the delegates
under the tent were a bit put off by the way the young Franciscans continually
interrupted the proceedings to chant “Giovanni Paolo” and clap.
For anyone inclined to
be leery of the triumphalist leanings of the Catholic church, Assisi probably
fueled those concerns.
Hence, two suggestions
for the next pan-religious summit.
First, I would urge the
Vatican to cut back on the number of cardinals (31 this time, with a baker’s
dozen more archbishops and bishops) and find room for some women. I suspect
that would put enormous pressure on other delegations to do the same.
Second, I would propose
that the next gathering be held off Catholic turf. Let someone else convoke
it — the Dalai Lama, or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Let the pope come
as one among other participants, with no special role and so special place.
The TV cameras will focus
on the pope anyway, of course. He can’t get out from under his celebrity.
But the symbolism of being a humble participant rather than the CEO of
Religion Inc., would, I think, do much to foster the ministry of service
that John Paul described in Ut unum sint.
That, too, would be “in
the spirit of Assisi,” even if it happened someplace else.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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