National Catholic Reporter ®

February 1, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 23

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Assisi, with some suggestions for improving
ecumenical gatherings; lunch with Gutiérrez and others

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.

The second was the pope-centered nature of the day. . . Let the pope come as one among other participants, with no special role and so special place. 

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 unity.

     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 also invited.

     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 years. 

     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 something, no?”

     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 of civilizations.”

     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 than coalitions.

     “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 keynote speakers.

     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. 

     Gutiérrez has 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. 

     Gutiérrez, with 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.

     Gutiérrez, now 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 poor.

     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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