The locomotive is still running. Times have changed, but it remains the symbol of a journey that continues despite all difficulties. It was January 24, 2002 when John Paul II travelled by train from Rome to Assisi together with representatives of the Christian Churches and of other religions of the world. The tragic 9/11 had happened four months earlier, with all the consequences it entailed. The then Cardinal Ratzinger narrated the event that occurred in the Italian town, explaining that it was not “the self-representation of religions, which are interchangeable.” Neither was it meant to “to assert the equality of all religions, which does not exist – he added -. The event in Assisi was the expression of a journey, a quest, a pilgrimage for peace, which can only take place if it is accompanied by justice.” Everything began sixteen years ago, in 1986, when the Polish Pope instituted the historic inter-religious prayer in the native land of the “Poor Saint”.
A long journey that reaches present times – thirty years later -, when the Pope has come from the other “end of the world” to celebrate the “spirit of Assisi.” A slap in the face of those who believe that division and aggression perpetrated by so many “warlords” is the winning logic. The 2016 edition, entitled “Thirst for Peace – Religions and Cultures in Dialogue”, has already seen the presence of the philosopher Bauman, President Sergio Mattarella, and his Central African colleague, Touadera. The representation of all confessions was substantial: over 450 religious leaders, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shinto, Jains, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, and Hindus. Muslim presence was a record: 26 Shia and Sunni delegations.
Despite the large number of people, the event in Assisi is not and will never be a “cocktail of religious experiences”, has quickly pointed out Monsignor Sorrentino. To avoid any risk of “syncretism based on relativism”, in fact, the different faith communities have separated moments of prayer, each one in a separate place. Another significant moment were the testimonies of 6 Nobel prizes for peace: the Catholic Northern Irish Mairead Maguire; Emeritus Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa; the American human rights activist and director of the campaign against land mines Jody Williams; the leader of the Arab Spring in Yemen, Tawakkul Karman; Hassine Abassi and Amer Meherzi, promoters of pluralist democracy in Tunisia after the Jasmine Revolution.
Today the Pope will meet the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ephraem II, and Muslim and Jewish leaders. The talks will focus on global questions that have not changed much since 1986. At the time, the world was divided by the Berlin Wall and there was a Cold War, whereas today we witness the fragmented third world war” . The Bishop of Rome, who is on his third visit to his namesake’s hometown – on August 4 he went on a pilgrimage to the Porziuncola of Santa Maria degli Angeli on the occasion of 800 years of the “Pardon of Assisi”, and on October 4, 2013, he had participated in the celebrations for St. Francis Patron of Italy – shows his concern with the poor also on this occasion. In fact, in the refectory of the Sacred convent, he has lunch with a group of 25 refugees: 10 of whom are hosted by the “Sant’Egidio Community”, 10 by “Cara” in Rome, and 5 by “Caritas” of Assisi.
The event, which has been dubbed the G8 of the Religions, will finish at 5.15 p.m. in St. Francis Square. After Pope’s speech, will follow the reading of a peace Appeal delivered to children belonging to different Nations. Other remarkable moments: a moment of silence for the victims of war, the signing of the Appeal, the lighting of two candlesticks, and the peace exchange. After so many years of dialogue, the train of dialogue has not stopped yet, though many people have tried to derail it. It is up to us – especially to national leaders – not to miss the connection that leads to a future of harmony among peoples.