Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It had to happen at some point. The pope has announced that there is going to be a twenty-fifth anniversary jamboree in Assisi where various religions of the world will again be invited, as they were in 1986. Are we in this case allowed to say 'oh hell', or would that offend our Jehovah Witness brethren who tell me that the Gehennah of fire was simply a rubbish tip outside Jerusalem?
The Catholic Herald wrings its hands long and hard about the pope's reservations concerning Assisi, as expressed in his 2003 book Truth and Tolerance. So what is the pope's justification for the kind of 'multi-religious prayer' that might take place at Assisi 2011 (note that it is not inter-religious, but multi-religious in character)? The Herald explains it thus:
In multireligious prayer, he wrote, the participants recognise that their understandings of the divine are so different “that shared prayer would be a fiction”, but they gather in the same place to show the world that their longing for peace is the same.
What I don't get, however, is why it is at all necessary to show such a longing is the same everywhere. Indeed, I have great difficulty in accepting that what Christians wish for when they wish for peace is what Buddhists also wish for. As Chesterton puts it, the Christians are waiting for the fulfilment of the world's desire; the Buddhists are surely searching for the extinction of all desire.
I have another and deeper problem here, however, and it is this: in the multi-religious format there is undoubtedly some kind of equivalence established between the prayers of all religions. Somehow, all our prayers are made expressive of the same ecology of petition and response. The trouble with that, however, is that the prayer of the Church is the prayer of Christ himself. Of course we would want to encourage any man to pray and petition God, even if he hardly understands who and what God is. But to put the Church in this multi-religious stance (let alone an inter-religious one) is somehow to erode the specificity of Christ's own prayer incarnate in time through his Mystical Body, the Church. We do not wish for the peace that the Muslim wishes for, for his peace would exclude Christ as God, who alone is the guarantor of peace.
We need not even touch on the issue of scandal which the current pope understood well enough in 1986 and in 2002. Why he must persist with this project escapes me, unless it be part of the John Paul legacy in its most radically misguided phase. Who but John Paul could have performed such an apparently syncretist shoe-shuffle before Europe's relativists, and then later on lament Europe's silent apostasy, and on both occasions be a model of unalloyed sincerity? John Paul, the hard-headed Polish priest ... fulfilling the dreams of those who would dissolve all religious differences in a gaseous, universal spirituality? I cannot but shake my head at the picture of him next to the Dalai Lama, holding that silly little plant pot and looking so serious. How did we come to this?
Still, if only he was here! JPII at least would have the nous to argue the toss and the good grace to enjoy the argument. He at least might have engaged with the argument because - and this is where many traditionalists have got him wrong - he was a man who loved the truth of Christ more than himself, even if he made some gross miscalculations. His legion of idolators on the other hand will barely hear a word against him, and no doubt genuflect again to this wretched, misguided simulacrum of a vicar's tea party.
And that is why Pope Benedict's acquiescence to the ghost of Assisi is so unlike him - he, the man who parked the Vatican's tanks overnight on the lawns of Lambeth!
In the first version of this piece, I said all this made me sick. Well, that was probably precipitous. We await to see some fuller explanation and clarification of what will happen. In manus tuas, Domine.