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Religion and Society

In Assisi 25 years on

The representatives of different religions and a group of non-believers, invited by Benedict XVI, met in Assisi on 27 October to celebrate a day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for world peace.


The ‘Pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace’ left together by train from the San Pietro station in Rome and reached the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, where they gathered in front of the Porziuncola, a small church that has now become the universal symbol of Francis’s spirituality and the dream of universal peace.



"Here in Assisi twenty-five years ago, Pope John Paul II set us off on the pilgrimage we are making today. We must therefore reflect on our progress along this path. Why have we not got closer to where he wanted to be? Are we lacking the interior part of the journey?". With these questions the representative of Hinduism, Acharya Shri Shrivatsa Goswami, invited us to search our own consciences with regard to the progress made so far.


Obviously the world today is not the same one as 25 years ago. Many things have changed even concerning the actual issue of peace.



After the speeches given by the various religious leaders and Julia Kristeva, representative of the laical and non-believing world, Benedict XVI took the floor and asked: ‘What has happened since then? At what stage is the cause of peace today?’



‘At that time – continues the Holy Father – the great threat for world peace came from the division of the planet into two blocks at odds with each other. The conspicuous symbol of this division was the Berlin Wall which, crossing through the middle of the city, marked out the boundary between two worlds. In 1989, three years after Assisi, the wall came down – without any bloodshed. All of a sudden, the huge arsenals that were behind the wall had no meaning at all. They had lost their ability to instil terror’.



The fall of the Wall did not bring with it an era of peace as a natural consequence; this is also threatened by the absence of God or by a religion conceived and experienced in the wrong way. In some cases even the Church made mistakes. The Pope recognises this with great humility, stating: ‘As a Christian, I would like to say at this point: yes, in history violence has been used even in the name of the Christian faith. We recognise this, full of shame. But it is absolutely clear that this was an unlawful use of the Christian faith, in obvious contrast with its true nature. The God in whom we Christians believe is the Creator and Father of all men, starting from whom all persons are brothers and sisters and constitute a single family’.



Saying no to God ‘has produced immeasurable cruelty and violence, which has only been possible because man no longer recognised any norm or judge above himself, but took as norm only himself. The atrocities of the concentration camps show the absence of God quite clearly’. In their own way the other religious leaders who took the floor recognised this too.



Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, has on several occasions spoken about the contribution that young people can give to the peace process. They, he said, are the ‘bearers of change’. The reason why ‘we need the vision and the courage of the young for necessary changes’.



In fact, we can all realise ‘how the young may lead the processes of democratisation and peace in many countries’. This happens, ‘even when they become the victims of violence and terror, as happened in my country, Norway, this year’, the pastor Fykse Tveit stressed.



When the meeting at Santa Maria degli Angeli had drawn to an end the participants went to the Basilica of St. Francis in the town of Assisi for the second part of the meeting, along with all the people who wanted to take part of their own accord, filling the nearby squares with infectious chants and rhythms.



The most solemn moment was when one by one and in their own languages, the religious leaders and one of the representatives of the non-believers proclaimed their commitment to peace and justice, a concrete answer to the journey made before reaching Assisi and to the warning made by Julia Kristeva’s in her speech: ‘For the first time, homo sapiens is able to destroy the earth and himself in the name of his own beliefs, religions or ideology, but also in the name of science and technology’.



The Osservatore Romano described one of the most beautiful moments of the winding up of the meeting in the following way: ten, one hundred, a thousand little flames lit to light up the twilight of a memorable day. These were the lights of the lamps in Assisi passed from the hands of the young people to those of the religious leaders from all over the world; those of the small lamps given to Catholic cardinals and archbishops, Anglicans, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists, Hindus and hundreds of followers of other denominations, in the late afternoon, at the foot of the tomb of St. Francis, the saint of universal brotherhood, everybody renewed their commitment to work in the great peace construction site.



What I saw and experienced convinces me of the truth of Julia Kristeva’s words: ‘The meeting of our diversities here at Assisi is witness to the fact that the hypothesis of destruction is not the only possible one’.



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