When The Pope Comes To The Party

It’s hard not to notice when the Pope shows up. And you can sometimes say the same when he doesn’t. Last fall, Pope Benedict XVI was a notable no-show at a September ceremony to mark 20 years since John Paul II had hosted a groundbreaking gathering of world religious leaders in Assisi, Italy. Some viewed the Pope’s absence as a slap to those working for inter-faith dialogue, both inside and outside the Catholic Church,. On Sunday, however, Benedict will be center stage at the most lavish, and well-attended inter-religious ceremony of his papacy, organized by the same Sant’Egidio community that helped launch Assisi. What has changed? Why is Benedict marking 21 years since “the spirit of Assisi” was uncorked, after skipping out on the 20th anniversary?

First, let’s turn back to that October 27, 1986 “prayer for peace” in the birthplace of St. Francis. The gathering in Assisi of monks and imams, rabbis and priests and prelates of all stripe has long been considered the catalyst that turned inter-religious dialogue into something of a worldwide, faith-based movement in its own right. But not all were impressed. Before becoming the current Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was considered one of the Vatican officials most skeptical about the efforts spawned by Assisi, which risked clashing with the traditionalist theologian’s conviction that differences among religions should not be glossed over for the sake of feel-good encounters.

Still, when it came time for the 20th anniversary last year, Benedict was not going to shun Assisi altogether. While preparing for a trip a few days later to his native Bavaria, the German Pope sent a letter to the commemorative gathering that called his predecessor’s focus on inter-faith dialogue at Assisi “prophetic” in light of the rising violence perpetrated in the name of religion.

Indeed, Benedict was about to live another chapter of that very prophecy. Just days later, during his homecoming trip to Germany, the new Pope delivered his provocative lecture on faith, reason and violence that set off widespread criticism in the Muslim world, punctuated by acts of violence, including the burning of churches and the killing of a nun in Somalia. Benedict was quick to turn to the “spirit of Assisi” in trying to calm the waters after his Regensberg speech, inviting Rome-based Muslim diplomats for a meeting in the Vatican and visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where he prayed shoulder-to-shoulder with the Turkish imam. Though tensions remain, a letter earlier this month addressed to the Pope and other Christian leaders, signed by 138 prominent Muslim clerics and scholars is seen as a potential breakthrough in relations between Islam and Christianity.

Of course, inter-faith dialogue for Catholics is hardly limited to Muslims. Perhaps highest of the priorities is finding unity with other Christian denominations. Benedict has also made clear his desire to reinforce John Paul’s good relations with Jews. But in recent months both those dialogues have suffered some nasty hiccoughs. First, in July, the Pope allowed for expanded use of the old-rite Latin Mass, which contains a Good Friday prayer that offends some Jews. A few days later, the Vatican’s doctrinal office reiterated Benedict’s stance — first stated when he was cardinal — that non-Catholic denominations of Christianity, excepting the Orthodox, are not true Churches because they cannot trace their hierachies back to the apostles. (The Orthodox, however, are a reduced Church because they do not recognize the primacy of the Apostle Peter’s successor, the Pope.) It is as clear as ever that Benedict will not mince words in laying out his vision of what it means to be Catholic, even if it risks offending both those inside and outside his own Church.

Still, to mark 21 years since the Assisi gathering — to be held in the southern city of Naples — Benedict made sure to offer not only his written words, but his physical presence. Indeed, the Pope’s positive RSVP means that some of the most influential leaders of other faiths will arrive as well, including Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Israel’s chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, and the rector of the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.

“It is very encouraging that the Pope has decided to come,” says Mario Marazziti, a spokesman for the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, the Rome-based group behind both the Assisi and Naples events. “At the same time we know this is a different Pope than John Paul who touched so many with the charisma of his person. This is a theologian-pope, who governs with his word.” But more and more, Benedict also seems to understand that gestures — and even just showing up — are sometimes the best way to be heard.