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Focus on Issues the Pope’s Prayer Meeting in Assisi

On the face of it, the meeting of representatives from the world’s major religions to pray for peace on Monday, October 27 in Assisi, Italy, is a positive development. Called by Pope John Paul II, leaders of Catholics, Protestants, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Shintoists and animists will meet in St. Francis of Assisi’s birthplace for prayer, and then will assemble the next day to discuss ideas for the promotion of peace.

While clearly Judaism’s leaders are deeply committed to the idea of “shalom,” the organization of this prayer demonstration has not been without problems for Jewish spokesmen.

First is the problem of calendar. The prayer day is scheduled to take place on the morning after Simchat Torah, the final day of Succot. In practical terms that means that no Jewish religious leader, certainly no Chief Rabbi, would violate yom tov by traveling overseas to Assisi on the Sunday before. As of now, only Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff of Italy is expected to be present as a Jewish religious representative. He will need to travel only a short distance from Rome.

Earlier, an official invitation had been extended to Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), which relates to the Vatican and the World Council of Churches as coordinating body for the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Synagogue Council, the World Jewish Congress, and the Israel Interfaith Committee. Because of the conflict with Simchat Torah, Waxman will not attend.

Some individual rabbis and Jewish organizational people reportedly will come to Assisi, but they have not received official invitations.

SOME ‘THEOLOGICAL’ DIFFICULTIES

Beyond the calendar problem, there are some “theological” difficulties which are being discussed in Jewish and other non-Catholic circles. When the idea of a world peace meeting was first discussed in Rome several years ago, the conception that some of us set forth was that the foremost recognized leaders of the major Western and Oriental religions would join together in inviting representatives of their respective communities to join in appropriate prayers and discussion for world peace.

Such “ecumenical” invitations would have precluded any possibilities of religious “one-upmanship” or triumphalism. As it turns out, this meeting is now being perceived essentially as a “Papal” or “Vatican” meeting to which other religions are being invited to take part.

One consequence, whether intended or not, might be to establish the Pope as “the moral conscience of mankind” to which these world’s religious representatives — not necessarily the elected leaders of the major religious — would seem to attest by their presence.

That imagery of a predominantly Catholic initiative with interreligious participation rather than a genuine pan-religious event will be under-scored by the fact that the climactic prayer event will take place in the Basilica of St. Francis instead of some more neutral assembly place.

In any case, the threat of nuclear catastrophe is so great and the cause of world peace so compelling that religious leaders appear to be ready to put aside ecumenical protocol for the time being in order to make a strong public demonstration for the cause of world peace.

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