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It was announced some months ago that Pope Benedict will go to Assisi in October to commemorate Pope John Paul II’s interreligious meeting there in 1986.

Assisi

The stated aim is to witness to peace, and not – as some people have feared – to pray together or to deny the uniqueness of Christ. As Cindy Wooden wrote in January:

He did not actually say anything about praying with members of other religions. Announcing the October gathering, he said he would go to Assisi on pilgrimage and would like representatives of other Christian confessions and other world religions to join him there to commemorate Pope John Paul’s “historic gesture” and to “solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service in the cause of peace.”

While Pope Benedict may be more open to interreligious dialogue than some of the most conservative Christians would like, he continues to insist that dialogue must be honest about the differences existing between religions and that joint activities should acknowledge those differences.

John Allen, more recently, looks as the significance of the coming meeting.

Movers and shakers in Rome are well aware that John Paul II’s 1986 interreligious summit was among the iconic moments of his papacy. It helped make the pope a global point of reference, it enhanced the effectiveness of Vatican diplomacy, and it boosted the moral authority of the church.

Today, the Vatican could use another win like that in the court of public opinion. In the West, it faces a hostile political and legal environment, with Ireland even threatening to breach the sanctity of the confessional. In other parts of the world, it needs the good will of governments and leaders of other faiths to protect Christians under fire. Tuesday’s car bomb attack against a Syro-Catholic church in Kirkuk, Iraq, offers tragic proof of the point.

A high-profile public event such as Assisi, which showcases the papacy’s unique capacity to bring religions together, could be a real boon — provided, of course, it doesn’t turn in to another PR debacle.

Assisi is also important to Benedict XVI. Although he’s made great strides in inter-faith relations, especially with Islam, in some quarters he’s still dogged by the image of a cultural warrior associated with a September 2006 speech in Regensburg, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor critical of Muhammad.

Given all that, one can expect Vatican officials to act with alacrity to put out any potential fires related to the Assisi summit.

Naturally, the fact that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among those seen as ambivalent about Assisi back in ’86 also lends subtext to the October edition. In light of that history, Vatican officials will bend over backwards to insist that this is not, as Koch put it, a “syncretistic act.”

I look forward to seeing what actually happens, as well as listening to what is said, since the visual symbolism of these meetings can often say far more than the words that are spoken.

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