There have been many such instances since then but the first one was not straightforward. Cardinal Ratzinger, the then Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith didn’t approve and didn’t attend. He believed that the theological differences between the faiths meant they couldn’t pray together – who were they praying to, how should the prayers be framed so that the integrity of each faith was respected. Nor was Cardinal Ratzinger the only person to feel like this. Even in my small neck of the woods we’ve had difficulties in organising interfaith services because of the hesitancy of some leaders to pray with others, fearing they would be asked to participate and express a faith that they didn’t accept or believe in. I’ve also known some people to be unhappy to pray what appeared to be an inclusive prayer because they were unsure what others meant by the words they were saying together. I must say I found this one a bit strange as there’s no knowing what others in one’s own faith mean by the words they say together. Each of us has our own personal image of God, our own understanding of prayer that’s not necessarily identical to that of the community of faith.
But the questions around interfaith prayer are legitimate. The Catholic Church’s answer is that we come together to pray but not to pray together – a rather delicate distinction which overcomes theological niceties. This in fact happened at the first Assisi meeting in 1986 when religious leaders came together to express their commitment to peace but were given separate areas in which to pray according to their own tradition. This has been the case in all the other Assisi gatherings and it was the case today though there was a minute of silence which to me is a legitimate way of praying together. As a Buddhist monk says in Morris West’s book The Ambassador, when we speak we are two, when we are silent we are one. But I would also like to think there’s a way in which we can also express prayers openly and publicly, trusting that each one is acknowledging that which is Ultimate in their own way and that the God to whom they pray is the One God that is the source of Life.
I don’t think Pope Francis would have any problem with this. In his own inimitable way he cut through the theological debates when he included in his encyclical on creation, ‘Laudato Si’, a prayer to be said with other Christian denominations and one to be said with other faiths. This latter prayer would not have been acceptable to Buddhists as it did address God but I’m sure it would be possible to express a prayer in such a way that it would be acceptable to them.
Today’s event was a long one. The Pope arrived in Assisi late morning to greet and dine with the leaders and representatives of the world’s religions, to dine 12 refugees who had fled conflicts in Nigeria, Eritrea, Mali and Syria. This is a typical Pope Francis touch. He has shown in many ways his commitment to refugees and any gathering for peace can only be made more meaningful by having victims of war not just present but also contributing as they did in today’s gathering. There were also symbolic gestures which I think are a legitimate form of prayer that can unite participants in events like today’s. Representatives of the world faiths and representatives from conflict areas throughout the world lit candles and signed an appeal for peace that was then handed to children representing different parts of the globe. But will the globe listen?
These meetings of religious leaders have become more common since Pope John Paul called the first one in 1986. Sometimes they go unnoticed but the fact that they do might even be a step forward in that the original Assisi gathering caused consternation amongst right wing traditional Catholics who were appalled to see the Pope standing side by side with the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders. Now interreligious dialogue has become part of Church life. Right minded people recognise the possibilities within religions for peace in our world. What we believers now have to do is make that possibility a reality by becoming peacemakers wherever we find ourselves and in whatever small way we can.