In January I and many readers, not to mention a lot of people, were disappointed to learn that Pope Benedict plans this year to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II's peace pow-wow held in Assisi in 1986. Here is what I wrote in reaction to the news:
The problem is that such a ceremony, under such patronage, seems to occlude, to hide, to veil from view the salvific peace which Christ came to bring the world. What does Christ mean by peace in the gospels? Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. The Church is not a wing of the police, and still less a wing of the diplomatic service. If we are against violence, our opposition is only relative; after all, only the violent bear away the kingdom of heaven. Is there not something in Assisi which lowers the temperature of the Church's zeal for her mission to spread not civilisational order but salvific peace? Is there not something in Assisi which seems to beg us to be contented with a peace which is purely civilisational? And is there not the danger that this civilisational peace is then confounded with a salvific peace, in a tangle of ideas which the SSPX and other traditionalists feel they must denounce as syncretism? Those are the questions. My fear is that this confusion over peace is deeply problematic. I would like an answer. I'm more likely to get one from Pope Benedict than from anyone else. Let us be patient.
So, now the Vatican has released its description of the event, where does that leave us?
Here is how the Vatican describes the theme of the event:
The Day will take as its theme: Pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace. Every human being is ultimately a pilgrim in search of truth and goodness. Believers too are constantly journeying towards God: hence the possibility, indeed the necessity, of speaking and entering into dialogue with everyone, believers and unbelievers alike, without sacrificing one’s own identity or indulging in forms of syncretism. To the extent that the pilgrimage of truth is authentically lived, it opens the path to dialogue with the other, it excludes no one and it commits everyone to be a builder of fraternity and peace. These are the elements that the Holy Father wishes to place at the centre of reflection.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. There are so many generalisations here, not to say dangerous insinuations. Whoever wrote this text has a serious problem with differentiation for a start.
That every human being is a pilgrim in search of truth and goodness is a reasonably accurate description of the human intellect and will, our principal and distinguishing faculties. But then what do we have? Believers too are constantly journeying towards God. The problems here are severe. There is a substantial difference in the journey of a man who already possesses the fulness of the faith and a man who does not. Of course they are both viatores but in quite distinct senses.
Let us find a comparison. Can you imagine what a woman would think of her husband if he sat in a room full of single people and, gazing around at them, said: 'We are all seeking love!' 'Well, you've got it chum!' she would say. And if you muddle the search for love by pretending that the internal journey of a married couple and of a single person are the same, you're in dead trouble. Actually, it is those very differences between believers (the possession of full or partial truth) that demand we should be in dialogue with others and not the fact we are on the same journey. But unless the distinctions are observed - AND HERE THEY ARE NOT! - warning about syncretism is merely shutting the door after the horse has bolted.
I applaud the fact that the meeting will be significantly different from the 1986 jamboree. But, really, what does peace mean when it is beset by so many confusing and misleading symbolic acts? The best we can hope for is that many people will put the best gloss on it and assume that Pope Benedict is not saying all religions are equal - an interpretation laid on Pope John Paul's Assisi meetings by some.
The worst, however, seems to be expressed in the Vatican's very own bulletin on the event. So all believers are continually journeying towards God, are they? And how different is that really from saying our religions all do pretty much the same thing?
This topic has been at the back of my mind all day (which we spent with dear friends). So I have to come back to it with just another thought or two.
It is possible that the change in the programme of this event might make the meeting in itself less susceptible of misinterpretation. I think the case could be argued either way.
But what is more disturbing is the language of the Vatican announcement which is as loose and as embarrassing as an old man's pyjama bottoms. Peace, peace, peace? St Augustine said peace is the tranquillity of order. If you want peace before order, however, you can find it in a gentlemen's club.
I think what I'm trying to get at is that a Catholic discourse which seeks to airbrush out the obstacles is as potentially damaging as a Catholic discourse which insists on beating one's interlocutor over the head with the obstacles. If we believe in the faith of the Church, we cannot describe our quest for truth - our attempts to understand better the faith, become finer realists, know ourselves but firstly know God - as if that were substantially the same as the quest of someone who is not even sure there is a God. Yes, we are all viatores, but the language of the Vatican about Assisi III makes it sound as if nobody has the map.
If Vatican officials they think they haven't got the map, I think they ought to tell us and resign! And if they have, well, why the bloody hell are they talking as if they don't?
I'm fulminating now, so I shall go to bed!
More thoughts on Assisi here.