Well, it's here, the grand religious jamboree which I wrote about here and here and here and here. Here is a day, if ever there was one, for looking bleary eyed at the dawn (as I have done) and burying oneself under the covers again (which I have singularly failed to do).
I must admit the Vatican has worked overtime to prevent misinterpretations of the genre that made Benedict stay away from Assisi in 1986 and which, in 2006, made him write the following to the Bishop of Assisi:
In order not to misinterpret the meaning of what John Paul II wanted to achieve in 1986 and what, to use his own words, he habitually called the 'spirit of Assisi,' it is important not to forget the attention paid on that occasion to ensuring that the interreligious Prayer Meeting did not lend itself to syncretist interpretations founded on a relativistic concept.
In the same letter, Benedict also recalled what John Paul II had said about the first Assisi meeting:
The fact that we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or of negotiating our faith convictions. Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all. Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs.
But surely, the fact that JPII could say this and still find the spirit of Assisi running out of control is proof that you cannot simply offer your own interpretations of your actions while, in those actions and in other words, undermining the interpretation you want people to lay on them. I'm reminded of a scene from a Marx brothers film in which Groucho is flirting with some pretty young girl and Margaret Rutherford (was it she?) says to him: 'But what are you doing flirting with her?
Groucho: I wasn't flirting!
Rutherford: Yes, you were! I saw you!
Groucho: Well, who are you going to believe: me or your own eyes?
Let me make that simpler. If we say: Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all, what does it mean if we then say that we are all in a quest for world peace? Isn't that an 'earthly project which would surpass [all religions]'? And if not, why isn't the nature of that peace - a purely civilisational or civic peace which simply ensures that we are not at each other's throats - made unmistakeably clear? I admit I haven't read all the sources and documents but this is fundamental.
And then there is this notion of pilgrimage. We're all on a pilgrimage are we? Let me quote to you what I wrote about this previously:
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 [hear]? 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.
Indeed, we are all in a convenant with God through our baptism. So what does it mean if we place ourselves in the same position of pilgrim towards the truth alongside members of all other religions? Of course, we as individuals are fallible and error-stricken at times: but do we believe our religion is Christ's revelation and our Church Christ's instrument to save the world, yes or no? And if so, what does it mean to pretend to be a pilgrim just like any Buddhist or Hindu?
What then really is the meaning of the train which today will rumble its way from Rome to Assisi? Am I the first one to wonder Quo vadis, Petre?
All that said, the actions of someone like Fr Régis de Caqueray, SSPX district superior in France, repeating everything that was said about Assisi I, and ratcheting it up a notch, are one more proof of the poor stuff that passes for argumentation from that quarter. Even the left-wing media - the Guardian and the BBC included - have got the message that Assisi is not syncretist or relativist in intention. And the SSPX's promise of a thousand Masses in reparation just looks a little too passive-aggressive to me. Some devils are only driven out by prayer and fasting, I agree, but but this just smacks of not trying to understand.
Mrs Ches asked me the other day what it would take for the pope to redeem the Assisi meeting today in my eyes. My answer is simple: all he need do is to say that while he welcomes them all as fellow humans and even as friends, he must read to them something he recently wrote to Catholics:
The “door of faith” (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime. It begins with baptism (cf. Rom 6:4), through which we can address God as Father, and it ends with the passage through death to eternal life, fruit of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, whose will it was, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, to draw those who believe in him into his own glory (cf. Jn 17:22). To profess faith in the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is to believe in one God who is Love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8): the Father, who in the fullness of time sent his Son for our salvation; Jesus Christ, who in the mystery of his death and resurrection redeemed the world; the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church across the centuries as we await the Lord’s glorious return.
And he might finish his address by donning his silly red hat and saying something like:
'So come on in, boys, the baptismal water is lovely!'
And then he could recess to the strains of Dave Brubeck's Take Five.
Nothing, after all, could be as silly as the bonsai olive plants of 1986.
Really what would be so bad if he did all that? It is that, after all - as the author of Dominus Jesus knows better than most - that Assisi or peace or pilgrimage or dialogue should mean ultimately:
Open your hearts to salvation in Jesus Christ: there is salvation in none other.