Imams, rabbis, Buddhist monks, Hindu holy men and followers of Confucius have strolled the chalky white and pink stone courtyards of the massive basilica here. Anti-globalization activists with fists in the air and Communist atheists carrying Marxist texts have conversed with gentle Catholic monks.
Peace marches and conferences on economic development, bioethics and myriad other topics have unfolded, all under the auspices of the Franciscan monks who control the shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, the much-beloved and storied founder of the Franciscan order.
Such gatherings, particularly a pair of interfaith meetings between world religious officials and Pope John Paul II , attracted wide media attention. Some drew heated controversy, such as a 2003 visit by Tariq Aziz, Iraq's deputy prime minister at a time when the United States was gearing up to invade his country. Aziz, a Christian, lit a candle in a church.
With a stroke of the pen earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI put the future of such varied -- some would say freewheeling -- events in question, according to Roman Catholic observers, both those who favor Franciscan activism and those who oppose it.
In a decree published Nov. 19, the pope placed the Franciscans in Assisi under the threefold control of a new local bishop, the Italian Bishops Conference and a yet-to-be-named papal overseer. The edict overturned autonomy granted in 1969 by Pope Paul VI that in effect made the Franciscans ambassadors to peace movements and to outside cultural and religious groups.
In "all initiatives with pastoral aspects," the Franciscans "will have to request and obtain the consent" of Assisi's bishop, who will in turn "hear the opinion" of the Umbria regional bishops conference and the Italian conference, Benedict's decree declared. The future papal delegate will "perpetuate, with his moral authority, the close bonds of communion" between the Vatican and the sacred places in memory of Saint Francis.
A Vatican spokesman said that under church law, pastoral activities such as the various Assisi events are "always" under control of the local bishop. Reminded that Paul VI had granted the Franciscans special autonomy, the spokesman replied: "The Assisi diocese resounds globally. The actions of the Franciscans in Assisi affect not only the diocese but all Italy and even the world. It is necessary to coordinate things in a way that they work as well as possible."
Reaction to the Vatican's move was strong across Italy. "The stronghold of dialogue has fallen. Now the Franciscans have their hands tied and can no longer be a bridge between the church and society," said Livia Turco, a member of the largest party in Italy's opposition coalition, the Democrats of the Left.
"It's about time," Bishop Sergio Goretti, the retiring bishop of Assisi, told La Repubblica newspaper. He complained that the monks had created "an autonomous enclave."
"Sometimes, I only found out what the monks were doing when I read about it in the newspapers," he said.
The Franciscans reacted diplomatically, a caution appropriate for an order that at its 13th-century birth was critical of hierarchy but has thrived under papal authority. "This is not an order to 'obey or else,' " said the Rev. Vincenzo Coli, custodian of the monastery that surrounds the basilica that houses Saint Francis's tomb, speaking in an interview. "This is done, I believe, in the spirit of collegiality. In theory, there is no problem. In practice, we will see."
Benedict's decree is a benchmark in the evolution of his seven-month-old papacy, many church observers say. So far, his reign has been an exercise in the tightening of practice to match church doctrine as he sees it. The new pope has taken the offensive against Catholic politicians who tolerate abortion and gay marriage, moved to bar homosexual men from entering seminaries and admonished bishops who fail to promote "the certainty of the fullness of the Church's faith."
In the view of critics, few places within the church challenged Catholic certainties more flamboyantly than Assisi. In particular, interfaith meetings held in the hilltop town appeared to them to be a kind of food court of dangerous relativist thinking.
Vittori Messori, a writer who interviewed John Paul II and edited a book based on that contact, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa recently that Benedict was settling scores with the Franciscans over a "carnival-like" interfaith meeting they hosted in 1986. Voodoo priests, American Indian dancers and African animists took part.
The event "cannot be the model" for ecumenical dialogue, the future pope said at the time. He was then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican office in charge of defending orthodoxy.
The meeting drew his disapproval because it fused differing systems of belief, according to Messori. The Franciscans went beyond agreed-upon rules by allowing pagan worship practices to take place on church property, and Benedict "never forgave the Franciscan community for the excesses," Messori said.
With the new rules governing Franciscan activity, "clerical reality divorced from the law of the Church is no longer allowed," Messori concluded.
The next Assisi interfaith meeting, in 2002, was low-key compared with the one in 1986, and several commentators saw Ratzinger's hand behind the changes. Fewer groups were represented, and some religions, including American Indian and Bahai, were replaced by Asian sects with larger followings.
After Benedict's election as pope, Sandro Magister, a leading Italian observer of the papacy, predicted that such meetings would "slip into the shadows" during his reign.
In the interview, Coli acknowledged the criticism but defended the meetings. He denied Messori's assertion that African animists sacrificed chickens on the altar near the tomb of Saint Clare, a contemporary of Saint Francis. Criticism of the Franciscans' activities is a way of indirectly criticizing John Paul, he added.
He rejected the notion that the Franciscan order had been hijacked by left-wing peace groups, environmental extremists and opponents of globalization. He took particular issue with Messori's claim that the order had distorted the significance of Saint Francis by making him into a "village idiot who speaks with wolves and birds."
"This is just stupidity," Coli said, speaking in an office outside the giant basilica. "We act in the authentic spirit of Saint Francis. We welcome all pilgrims." Tariq Aziz's visit was purely religious, he added.
Coli took visitors on a tour of the upper level of the basilica, which is decorated with frescoed panels attributed to the 13th- and 14th-century artist Giotto. They depict episodes in the saint's life. The tour was also an illustrated sermon, with the paintings serving as props for Coli's explanation of the Franciscan outlook and the present controversy.
He pointed out one panel that showed a naked Francis, having given up his abundant possessions, addressing townspeople of Assisi. Coli drew attention to another that depicted Francis trying, during the Fifth Crusade, to persuade the sultan of Egypt to convert and sue for peace. Finally, he gestured at a panel that showed Francis preaching to birds. "It all points to the need for dialogue," Coli said. "That is our spirit."
He said that meetings with members of other religions were not a sign of weakened faith, but a mark of mature, confident belief. "We can therefore be open to communication. Clashes are not necessary," he said.
Coli took a long view of relations with the pope. He pointed out that the order has had special relationships with three pontiffs: Gregory IX, who canonized Francis and built the church over his tomb; Benedict XIV, who declared the church a basilica and papal chapel; and Paul VI, who granted autonomy to the Assisi friars.
Returning to the issue of Benedict XVI and the new decree, the friar dismissed notions that the Franciscans would resist. He pointed to yet another Giotto fresco, called the "Dream of Innocent III."
Innocent was a pope who reigned during the beginning years of Francis's preaching. He was suspicious of the poor upstart, but nonetheless enabled him to gather a following. In the fresco, a sleeping Innocent imagines Francis holding up a tottering St. John Lateran Basilica, the official home church of the popes in Rome.
"You see," said Coli. "Francis is supporting the church of the pope. Francis is within the institution. We are not rebels. We will think of ideas, and if they are rejected, we will come up with something else."