THE SHARED PRAYER OF CHRISTIANS
The booklet prepared for that momentous day in Assisi (October 27th 1986) was entitled "In prayer for peace". This title was specified inside on the first page, as follows: "World Day of Prayer for Peace with representatives of Churches and ecclesial Communions and of the world religions at the invitation of Pope John Paul II."
In Assisi an extraordinary day was lived. All those present were drawn by two poles: a sense of everybody's dependence on God and the need for peace as the expression of the brotherhood of mankind created by God. Representatives of all the different religions found themselves with this prospective.
Nevertheless, humanity's division was also present in that prayer for peace offered by all. In fact, there cannot be a shared prayer of representatives of different religions. Praying for peace in Assisi there were Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants), Jews, followers of non-Christian religions (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Sikhs, members of traditional African and American and Indios religions, Zoroastrians).
A prayer for peace distinct in time and place
The general atmosphere of deep prayer and an exterior view of the event might have created a false impression. As if everyone were taking part in a shared prayer, with the consequent danger of negative minimalism or confused syncretism. In actual fact, in this event, which involved many different believers (Christians and non-Christians), relations between the various religious groups were based on a spirit of correct loyalty and also unquestioned respect for the respective theological and disciplinary positions.
Everyone prayed for the gift of peace, but each religious group did so according to its own traditions and separately, at different times and in different places.
In the morning each group prayed separately in different parts of the town. There were twelve places of prayer (churches or halls). The Jews were the only ones who chose to pray in the open, in a small square.
The Christian representatives of the different Churches and ecclesial Communions gathered to pray together in St Rufino's Cathedral. The Christians in fact offered a shared prayer. In his opening address Pope John Paul II explained the meaning of Christians "coming together" to pray "in the same place":
"We are able as Christians to gather on this occasion in the power of the Holy Spirit, who draws the followers of Jesus Christ ever more fully into that participation in the life of the Father and the Son, which is the communion of the Church. The Church herself is called to be the effective sign and means for reconciliation and peace for the human family.
Despite the serious issue which still divide us, our present degree of unity in Christ is nevertheless a sign to the world that Jesus Christ is truly the Prince of Peace. In ecumenical initiatives God is opening up to us new possibilities of understanding and of reconciliation that we may be better instruments of his peace. What we do here today will be less than complete if we go away without a deeper resolution to commit ourselves to continuing the search for full unity and to overcoming the serious divisions which remain. This resolution applies to us as individuals and as communities."
In the early afternoon the different groups processed on converging routes towards the same point: the lower square adjoining St Francis' Basilica. The purpose was to "come together to pray". Here the believers were "all together" and in the "same place". But here too, each group was distinct. One by one, each of the various different religious groups prayed for peace in front of all the others. Between each prayer there was a pause for silence to distinguish the separate groups and prayers. The Christians, however, prayed all together. After an introduction there was the reading of the Gospel of the Beatitudes (Lk 6, 20-31), then therewere several prayers of intercession followed by the recital of the Our Father. The prayer concluded with a commitment to serve the cause for peace. Therefore, the Christians' prayer for peace in Assisi was a shared prayer in front of followers of the great world religions.
Shared prayer is based on a common faith and therefore fully shared by those who partake in it. It was a prayer based on common baptism with the consequences of baptism, at least in two directions. First, that Baptism expresses the faith which unites Christians in fundamental solidarity, existing despite persistent and consistent divisions. In fact, "Baptism is the sacramental bond of the unity which exists between all those re-generated by it" (U.R., 22).
Secondly, Baptism expresses an ulterior need: "Baptism is in itself only the initiation and beginning, since it tends to the acquisition of fullness of life in Christ. Therefore Baptism is ordered to the integral profession of faith, the integral incorporation in the institution of salvation, as Christ himself wished and lastly to full insertion in Eucharistic communion" (Ibidem). The shared prayer of Christians is founded then on the one Baptism, from which it receives interior tension towards fullness and consequently requires the elimination of differences for a solution of unity.
The immediate proximity, in Assisi, of others, believers but not baptised, made even more evident the baptismal bond between Christians. Although it also emphasised the contradiction between the demands of the sacrament of unity which Baptism is, and the situation of the baptised who are divided in different Christian Churches and Communions. And so, all the more necessary and urgent appeared the need to strive for that full communion which originates in the baptismal vocation. Shared prayer of Christians in the search for full unity is never consoling or quietening: it is always in some way disturbing. That prayer in Assisi was also captivating.
The prayer of Christians not in opposition to others
The shared prayer of Christians, explicitly distinct from the prayers of the other single religious groups, was not however at all in opposition to the others. It was made in their presence, it invoked the same good for which the other believers asked, peace for everyone, for the whole of humanity.
The various delegates came from different horizons and concrete situations with very different cultural and religious traditions, from contrasting political situations. That heterogeneous assembly in the articulation of the prayers of each individual religious group, rediscovered a sense of a more profound destiny: that of a creature called by God to recompose the unity of the entire human race. In this spiritual context not only was the shared prayer of Christians, not in opposition to the other groups, it also expressed how the full unity to be established among Christians does not intend to be against anyone, rather at the service of all. The prayer of the Christians in Assisi assumed the dimension of a simple yet powerful common witness, open to all.