Papal Message in Assisi Fit Occasion, Setting

Last week, on Thursday, October 27, I had the honor of participating in the Day of Reflection, Dialogue, and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World. It was a joy indeed to be with Pope Benedict XVI, and over 200 leaders of world religions in Assisi, the town of St. Francis and St. Clare.

(I guess it was my exuberance over the victory of my beloved hometown St. Louis Cardinals that prompted me, when asked for my comments by a journalist, to call this historic event “the World Series of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.”)

This was not the first time that representatives of world religions gathered in friendship in Assisi at the invitation of the Bishop of Rome. Blessed John Paul II endured harsh criticism when he summoned the first such convocation back in 1986. In fact, it was the 25th anniversary of that revolutionary assembly that occasioned this bold initiative of his successor.

You might also recall that, six months after the horrors of 9/11, Pope John Paul II called for the second such gathering in the tidy Umbrian town made famous by the “little poor man” of Assisi who made peace and reconciliation his mantra.

We New Yorkers should be especially proud of our representatives there. In addition to myself, Rabbi Daniel Polish of Poughkeepsie, Rabbi Eric Greenburg of the ADL, Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, Mrs. Betty Ehrenberg of the World Jewish Congress, and David Michaels of B’nai B’rith were all exuberantly present. (In fact, they all had much better seats than I did, right on the stage with the Holy Father, while I was in the bleachers!)

In his own splendid words—which the Pontiff purposefully gave from the same podium, in the same manner, as all the other leaders, reminding us that he was one among many—Pope Benedict XVI masterfully articulated the three towering lessons of the event: one, all of us are children of God, made in His image, called to love Him and one another.

Two, all men and women need God. True, the Pope admitted, the secularist culture so dominant might claim that religion is dead, at best a superstitious hobby, and that humanity is a lot better off without it. But deep down we all acknowledge that a human being is at his most natural, at her best, when that person senses a hunger for the beyond, the eternal, the transcendent, and that the human person is less than happy, less “human,” when he/she ignores or denies that longing for the divine.

Finally, and most powerfully, Pope Benedict XVI took the bull by the horns. Genuine faith brings about love, peace, and justice. Any use of religion for hatred, violence, oppression, or terrorism is a tragic and hideous abuse of religion, and must be unmasked as such.

The Holy Father’s ringing affirmation of the true and noble purpose of religion was made even more credible by his humble confession that Christianity itself had unfortunately distorted faith in the past: “We acknowledge this with great shame. It is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature.”

The Holy Father went on to observe shrewdly that the dominant secular culture enjoys caricaturing religion as a cause of war, ignorance, and oppression, as it helps in their own crusade to discredit faith and lock it in the sacristy, making sure it has no voice in the public square.

What was so clear to all of us was that this simple event—leaders of Judaism, Islam, Anglicanism, Evangelicals, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoism, Native Religions, Orthodox, Baha’i, Christians, Catholics, Protestants, even humanists and non-believers—was actually an icon of the beauty and power of genuine religious faith: children of God, each impeccably loyal to his/her own faith, simply and sincerely united in trust, respect, and thirst for the peace and justice religion prays and works for… a peace and justice that actually cannot come about, as we’ve learned the hard way, without faith.

All of us returned on the papal train to the Vatican convinced that we had made a big step in reclaiming faith from the fanatics and bigots who have falsely and horribly held it hostage to a deadly ideology.

Call this hate, terrorism, violence, bigotry, whatever…

Don’t you dare call it religion.