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Pope Benedict Moves Cautiously In Approaching Other Faiths

By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service
Saturday, October 20, 2007

VATICAN CITY -- Twenty-one years ago this month, Pope John Paul II met in Assisi, Italy, with more than 150 leaders of different religions to pray for peace. Images of the white-robed pontiff worshiping in the Basilica of St. Francis alongside colorfully garbed Tibetan Buddhists, Japanese Shintoists and representatives of traditional African and American faiths captivated millions around the world.

Not everyone, however, was pleased -- including the man who would one day succeed John Paul.

"This cannot be the model," said Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who was then head of the Roman Catholic Church's highest doctrinal body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger later wrote that it was "indisputable that the Assisi meetings, especially in 1986, were misinterpreted by many people."

Ratzinger feared that such displays, however well-intentioned, could promote the relativistic idea that all religions are equally true, or that all faiths could be combined in a single blend.

Yet, tomorrow, Benedict will attend the opening day of the International Meeting for Peace in Naples. Organized by a Catholic lay group, the Community of Sant'Egidio, it is the latest in an annual series of events intended to sustain the "spirit of Assisi."

The pope will offer an ecumenical Mass in Naples's main piazza, then have lunch with about 200 religious leaders, including the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, the chief rabbi of Israel and the Muslim rector of Al-Azhar University in Egypt.

To see the onetime critic of the Assisi gathering give his blessing to this event might seem evidence of a dramatic conversion. But tomorrow's event in Naples also reflects Benedict's particular approach to dialogue with other faiths. It is a style markedly more cautious than that of his predecessor.

The organizers of the gathering stress that there is not, and never has been, anything in the spirit of Assisi that promotes relativism or a mixing of faiths. "We are not offering a marmalade of religions," said Mario Marazziti, the co-founder of Sant'Egidio.

Ever since the 1986 gathering, Marazziti said, organizers have arranged for representatives of different faiths to pray in separate locations.

Last September, to mark the 20th anniversary of the first Assisi event, the meeting was again in Assisi. The pope sent a letter of support but warned against relativism.

Although Benedict will be in Naples tomorrow, he will leave before the official beginning of the meetings. He will not be present for the prayers Wednesday. As for the Mass that he will offer tomorrow, the only religious leaders who have been formally invited are other Christians.

So if the pope offers any prayers in the presence of non-Christian representatives this weekend, it will be just before their meal together, and presumably in silence.

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