«THE SPIRIT OF ASSISI»
The spirit of Assisi: it was Pope John Paul II who coined the expression. Since October 27th 1986, this "spirit" has been felt a little everywhere, losing none of the power of its first flowering. I have no intention of playing the old gardener, but, having been a fascinated witness of its germination in the Pope's thought and the privileged artisan of its blooming, I feel I can affirm: on that day I heard the world's heart-beat. A brief meeting on a hill, a word or two, a gesture, sufficed for fragmented humanity to joyfully rediscover its original unity. When, at the end of a grey morning, a rainbow appeared in the sky over Assisi, those leaders of religions, called together by the audacious prophet of one of them, Pope John Paul II, saw in it a pressing call to brotherhood: no one could doubt that it was prayer which had won this visible sign of concord between God and the descendants of Noah. At San Rufino Cathedral, when the heads of Christian Churches exchanged a sign of peace, I saw tears on the faces of some, and not of the least important ones. In front of St Francis' Basilica where, perished by the cold, each one seemed to draw closer in that elbow-to-elbow finale (John Paul II was beside the Dalai Lama), when some young Jews leaped up on to the platform to offer olive branches to us, and to Muslims first of all, I found myself wiping the tears from my own face.
If I evoke that Day of Assisi with emotion, it is because I had obstinately led its laborious preparation between Charybde and Scylla, with the assistance of the Pontifical Council for the Unity of Christians and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. We had behind us no historical reference, before us no beacons. As the exegetes say, the meeting was a sort of "hapax" and it will certainly remain thus, unique, original and exemplary. The longing for peace between men and between peoples urged us " to come together to pray but not to pray together" as it was explained by the Pope, whose initiative, despite his concern to avoid even the appearance of syncretism, was at that time misunderstood by some who feared their Christian specificity might be diluted.
Assisi caused the Church make a great leap forward towards non-Christian religions, which until then appeared to us to live on another planet, despite the teachings of Pope Paul VI (his first encyclical Ecclesiam Suam) and the Second Vatican Council (Declaration Nostra Aetate ).
The encounter, or better collision of religions, is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges of our era, even greater than the meeting with atheism. I never return from certain Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu countries without asking myself, keenly: what has God done with Jesus Christ when I see Christianity so reduced or reducing itself even more, proportionally speaking, on a continent in full demographic explosion such as Asia? Such a question is most salutary, since it concerns the fundamental question of salvation; it is the spear-head which purifies and fortifies our reasons for being Christians.
Assisi was the symbol, the staging of what the Church must do by virtue of her proper vocation before a world in a state of flagrant religious pluralism: to profess the unity of the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ. When John Paul II tried to report to the cardinals and members of the Curia what happened in Assisi, he gave an address which appears to me to be the most explanatory for the theology of religions ( 22nd December 1986). Insisting on the mystery of the unity of the human family founded both on creation and on redemption in Jesus Christ, he said: "The differences are a lesser important element in relation to the unity which, on the contrary, is radical, fundamental and determining". So Assisi permitted a number of men and women to bear witness to an authentic experience of God in the heart of their respective religions. "All authentic prayer, the Pope added, is fostered by the Holy Spirit who is mysteriously present in the heart of every human being".
Assisi, happened ten years ago. Today, believers of various religions and communities, after the example of Elisha who receives Elijah's cloak, are putting on the "spirit of Assisi". The spirit of Assisi is gliding over the bubbling waters of the religions and is already creating marvels of fraternal dialogue. What will it lead to in the Year 2000? Pope John Paul II in his Letter Tertio Millennio adveniente traces precise milestones for the Great Jubilee; not forgetting followers of non-Christian religions, especially the Jews and the Muslims who, like Christians, claim descent from Abraham. He hopes for "joint meetings in places of significance for the great monotheistic religions" (n. 53). What for? Simply to allow all believers to participate "in the joy shared by all the disciples of Christ" (n. 55). A Jubilee is made for jubilation! The Church rejoices for salvation which she never ceases to welcome and she invites the whole of humanity to join the dance. It is folly - the folly of God - that which the spirit of Assisi may invent as a sequel to the Angels who sang on Christmas night: Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to mankind whom He loves"!
"Spirit of Assisi", come upon us all!
Card. Roger Etchegaray