Dialogue and Prayer: Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the Assisi Day of Prayer

By John Borelli

Jesuit missionaries of the 16th through 18th centuries weighed carefully how they might adopt customs and accommodate to cultures in order to gain acceptance and respect to witness the Catholic faith in intellectual and religious circles of Asia. According to author Chris Lowney, who wrote “Heroic Leadership,” the personal ingenuity displayed by Matteo Ricci required a depth of self-awareness that was qualified by freedom from attachments, knowledge of personal nonnegotiables and confidence to embrace new approaches.

Comparing and contrasting Roberto de Nobili with other missionaries, Fr. Francis Clooney (NYK), in “The Jesuits,” concluded that their confident intellectual synthesis, despite what it allowed them to learn and contribute, restricted their interreligious encounters to the reasonable and imaginable by “norms that were already well established and devoutly believed in.” As Ron Modras reminds us in “Ignatian Humanism,” “neither Ricci nor de Nobili was uncritical of the culture in his new homeland.” Still, although they avoided religious mixing, because of preoccupations with idolatry and superstition, the mild innovations of Ricci and de Nobili were not safe from suspicion and ultimately censure. When the Vatican restored them in 1939 and 1940, could anyone have imagined the public interreligious encounters of prayer to come?

In 1939 and in 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced a general council, Catholics were still discouraged even from participating in the prayer life of Protestants. Reversing this, the Council’s Decree on Ecumenism commended prayer in common and worship together as far as present communion allows. Although promotion of Christian unity was one of the original motivations of Pope John for Vatican II, ecumenical encouragement was groundbreaking for Catholics. Initially, Pope John had nothing more in mind, like addressing the relationship of the church with Jews, the core idea developed into the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non Christian Religions. Once it was proposed and considered, he never ceased favoring it. The Council accomplished even more than expected, expanding relations with Jews into something broader, “That Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture.”

While religious pluralism raises questions for those who are grounded in one faith tradition yet are open to the values, truths, way of life and cultures of others, interreligious encounter is not a purely intellectual enterprise. Prayer and spiritual practices provide context for interreligious sharing. Thus, 20 years ago, Pope John Paul II hosted an interreligious World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi on October 27, 1986. Five days before, the pope clarified that “What will take place at Assisi will certainly not be religious syncretism but a sincere attitude of prayer to God in an atmosphere of mutual respect.” There were still nonnegotiables, for which they used the formula “being together to pray but not to pray together.” Actually, each group, Christians, Buddhists, and so on, prayed together in groups but separately from the others, and, when all re-assembled at the end, they prayed, not together, but in one another’s presence.

Pope John Paul’s mood remained elevated as he reflected on the experience. Devoting his annual December address to the curia to the gathering at Assisi, he stressed how the coming together of Christians and persons of other religions to pray, to fast and to walk in silence was “a clear sign of the profound unity of those who seek in religion spiritual and transcendent values that respond to the great questions of the human heart, despite concrete divisions.” For him, Assisi was an experience of “together turning, in a disinterested way, toward the capital objective of peace” and of “turning, all of us, toward God,” as he explained to the diplomatic corps to the Holy See the following January.

So successful was this form of encounter that John Paul II called two more, one in 1993, focusing on the war in the Balkans, and another in 2002, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Such encounters, at Assisi and at other times and places, moved John Paul II personally and deeply affected others with him. It was inspiring to see religious leaders walking the streets of Assisi and standing prayerfully together— undeniably a significant feature of John Paul II’s pontificate that moved interreligious dialogue in a formal way beyond Vatican II’s initial steps.

Keeping prayerful silence together in meditation, listening respectfully to the prayers of others, pledging solemnly for peace in ceremonial voices, as occurred at Assisi 2002, being edified by the prayers and spiritual practices of others, and sometimes borrowing their techniques seems to fall between being together in prayer and praying together. De Nobili was accused of diluting Christian truth and values and Ricci of being too accommodating to Confucian culture, but even their modest borrowings, at times, seemed to fall between keeping apart in matters of faith and joining together in practice. They would not have imagined such prayerful interreligious encounters hosted by a pope. Today, we can recall several that still stir our imaginations.

Borelli, special assistant to the president of Georgetown University for interreligious initiatives, is national coordinator for interreligious dialogue for the Jesuit Conference.


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