The Legacy of Assisi

Today Pope Francis joins religious leaders from around the world to consider a “world emerging from a pandemic.” The pope will preside over a Christian ecumenical prayer gathering and then join Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu leaders in a final ceremony. The event takes place in the “spirit of Assisi,” referring to the 35th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace held in the birthplace of St. Francis.

Although gatherings like his are now commonplace, the 1986 meeting was a watershed event that had massive ramifications for how both Catholics and non-Catholics perceived Catholicism and its relationship with other religions. This one event fundamentally altered how Catholics viewed their faith and its place in the world.

The 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace broke with 4,000 years of Judeo-Christian tradition. From the first days of the Jewish people, through the time of the Apostles and up to the 20th century, Jews and then Catholics considered mixing with other religions the ultimate sin. Israel struggled for centuries against paganistic practices that seeped into their faith; St. Paul warned against intermingling with unbelievers (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-16); great Catholic missionaries like St. Boniface destroyed pagan idols in their efforts to bring people to the true Faith. 

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The prayers of nonbelievers were fruitless, since they were not directed to the true God. As the Psalmist wrote, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols” (Ps 96:5). Even the appearance of supporting a false religion was to be avoided. In the Second Book of Maccabees, Eleazar, an elderly scribe, refuses to eat meat disguised as pork, for fear it might scandalize others and bring them to sin (2 Macc. 6:24-25). 

All that caution toward other religions was thrown out the window in 1986 by Pope John Paul II, in the name of “interreligious dialogue.”

It’s not that the era of interreligious dialogue started in 1986; Vatican II ushered it in two decades prior. But Pope Paul VI, who embraced ecumenism among Christians, was more cautious about dialogue with non-Christian religions. While he allowed it under his pontificate, he was hesitant to embrace it personally.

John Paul II had no such reservations. From the beginning of his pontificate he prioritized working with other religions. He believed that by cooperating the religions of the world could help overcome earthly problems, particularly war and violence. Specifically, he felt that prayer—including the prayers of non-Catholics and even non-Christians—could help bring peace. Two months after Assisi, he said:

At Assisi, in an extraordinary way, there was the discovery of the unique value that prayer has for peace; indeed, it was seen that it is impossible to have peace without prayer, the prayer of all, each one in his own identity and in search of the truth . . .Every authentic prayer is under the influence of the Spirit “who intercedes insistently for us.” . . . We can indeed maintain that every authentic prayer is called forth by the Holy Spirit, who is mysteriously present in the heart of every person. (To the Roman Curia, December 22, 1986)

The Assisi event, then, was an opportunity to gather together religious leaders specifically to pray.

But John Paul II was careful to distinguish that these various religious leaders were not praying together, but “being together in order to pray” (To the Faithful in General Audience, October 22, 1986). While this might sound like a distinction without a difference, it was an important theological point. The pope was not embracing praying together since that would imply that they were all praying to the same deity. Instead he was giving each space to pray individually.

Of course, giving “space” ended in disaster. A group of Buddhists, led by the Dalai Lama, placed a small statue of the Buddha atop the tabernacle in the Church of San Pietro, set prayer scrolls and incense burners around it, and performed Buddhist religious rites. One might point out that John Paul II couldn’t have known this would happen. But it is hard to be shocked when, having handed over the use of a church to non-Catholics, you find that they practice their non-Catholic religion there. And at whose feet then does that desecration lie?

The pope also gathered the religious leaders together at the end of the event, giving each the opportunity to pray separately in his own tradition, while still insisting that they were not praying together.

Unsurprisingly the pope’s careful theological distinctions were lost on most people, both Catholic and non-Catholic. The day after the event, the New York Times ran the headline, “12 Faiths Join Pope to Pray for Peace” with a photo of John Paul II standing among leaders ranging from an Orthodox Metropolitan to African animists. The event sent the message, whether intended by the pope or not, that Catholicism was one religion among many, rather than the One True Faith.

Assisi is probably the most controversial of all of John Paul II’s actions. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of the Society of St. Pius X said it was the 1986 Assisi meeting which gave urgency to his desire to consecrate bishops for his Society of St. Pius X, which he did without the pope’s permission just two years later. He believed the event endorsed idolatry, and argued that he needed bishops in his Society to resist such actions in the future. Even Cardinal Ratzinger later criticized Assisi, although as Pope Benedict XVI he held a similar event.

It’s also easy to see a connection between Assisi and the 2019 Pachamama incident. If Buddhist idolatry can be practiced in a Catholic church without papal rebuke (and with implicit papal permission), then why not openly bring a South American idol for veneration to the Vatican? In both cases, these acts of idolatry were met with papal silence.

As I detail in my book Deadly Indifference, the legacy of Assisi is religious indifference. Whether it was the intention of John Paul II or not, Assisi cemented among Catholics the notion that their Faith was just one in a long list of religions and their pope just one of many religious leaders. It showed to the world that Catholics really don’t think their religion is superior to other religions. 

The religious indifference fostered by Assisi was also the final nail in the coffin of robust Catholic evangelization. After all, why work and suffer to bring people to Catholicism if their prayers are just as good as ours? Assisi jettisoned the traditional Catholic belief, found repeatedly in Scripture and Tradition, that the prayers of non-Christians are for naught, putting those false religions on the same level as the true one.

Many conservative Catholics today still defend John Paul II and Assisi. They say that he never intended to promote religious indifference. I think that’s likely true. Yet actions have more consequences than intentions. The image of a pope standing alongside other religious leaders, the image of Buddhists placing their idol on top of a tabernacle where Jesus resides, the image of a pope lauding prayers to false gods—all these images send a powerful message. 

And that powerful message still resounds in the Church 35 years later. Now we have a pope who declares, in union with an Islamic Iman, that “the pluralism and the diversity of religions…are willed by God.” And the pope and Iman make that joint declaration “in the name of God” even though the name of God for Catholics is “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (cf. Matthew 28:19), a name explicitly rejected by Islam. Such a declaration would have been unthinkable just a few short decades ago, but today it’s business as usual for Catholics.

If Catholics are to reclaim our missionary zeal, we are going to have to give a long, hard look at Assisi and interreligious dialogue in general. Perhaps our fathers and mothers in the faith were wise to reject the intermingling of Catholicism with false religions. Instead of treating the Catholic Church as just one religion among many, we need to proclaim again that it is the One True Faith, without which no one can be saved.

[Photo: Religious leaders at the 1985 World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, Italy]


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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