John Paul II and the Spirit of Assisi
Sant Egidio, Krakow, September 2009
Rabbi David Rosen
I am especially honored by this invitation to speak on the panel on John Paul II and the spirit of Assisi, as last year in Cyprus I was on the panel on John Paul II and his vision of peace. Accordingly I think it fair to assume that the Community of Sant Egidio decided that my tribute to John Paul II last year was not bad. Aside from the compliment, I am particularly honored to be recognized as one who pays appropriate tribute to one who was such a remarkable religious leader and spiritual guide of our times.
As I mentioned last year, those of us involved in Jewish-Catholic relations owe John Paul a very special gratitude even beyond all his remarkable ecumenical and interfaith achievements. As a man with profound understanding of the power of dramatic gestures, he incarnated the transformation in Catholic-Jewish relations since Nostra Aetate in events like his visit to the synagogue in Rome and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, taking this relationship to new heights. Vatican documents issued under his papacy and his own words and writings further deepened and enriched this relationship. It is fair to say that no Pope has ever known the Jewish people as well as John Paul II and in all probability none ever will. Indeed he described the changes of the Second Vatican Council regarding Jews and Judaism as reflecting his own "personal experience, as well as from the very first years of my life in my hometown" (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, G. Wiegel, p. 96)
However the Christian-Jewish relationship is a unique one. The spirit of Assisi as reflected in that historic gather of October 27th 1986 went beyond any particular bilateral relationship and built upon the Second Vatican Council in a manner that expressed a universal spiritual vision that transcended particularities while still respecting them.
John Paul II made it clear in his words on that occasion what the spirit of Assisi was and what it was not :
"The fact that we have come here does not imply any intention of seeking a religious consensus among ourselves or negotiating our faith convictions. Neither does it mean that religions can be reconciled at the level of a common commitment in an earthly project which would surpass them all. Nor is it a concession to relativism in religious beliefs, because very human being must sincerely follow his or her upright conscience with the intention of seeking and obeying the truth.
Our meeting attests only – and this is its real significance for the people of our time – that in the great battle for peace; humanity, in its very diversity, must draw from its deepest and most unifying sources where its conscience is formed and upon which is founded the moral action of all people."
Yet it was precisely through prayer, at Assisi and following on from it, that John Paul II sought to express that vision.
In his 1986 address to Curia, he argued the necessity for all people to pray for peace stating that "every authentic prayer is under the influence of the spirit who intervenes insistently for us … because we do not even know how to pray as we ought". But he who prays "with unutterable groaning", does so in "the same Spirit (that) was at work in the Incarnation and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus."
Furthermore in Redemptoris Missio (1990, p. 28), John Paul II declared that the Holy Spirit is "at the very source of man's existential and religious questioning" especially in prayer, and that "the Spirit's presence and activity affect not only individuals, but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions."
In the midst of this vision there is a far reaching theological exposition of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
Lumen Gentium, 16, declared that "those who do not know the Gospel of Christ or his church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart; and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – these too may attain eternal salvation."
It continues (17) "whatever good is found … in people's hearts and minds, or in the rites and customs of peoples, is not only saved from destruction; but is purified, raised up, and perfected for the glory of God, the confusion of the devil, and the happiness of humanity."
Nostra Aetate (2) states "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these (other) religions. It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men and women."
However John Paul II went further and declared that there is "the so-called semina verbi (seeds of the word) – a kind of common soteriological root – present in all religions". (Crossing the Threshold, p. 81)
In Redemptoris Missio (section 20), he stated "it is true that the inchoate reality of the Kingdom can also be found beyond the confines of the Church among peoples everywhere, to the extent that they live 'Gospel values' and are open to the working of the Spirit who breathes when and where He wills." (R.M. 20)
In other words John Paul II viewed the religions of the world as actually contributing themselves to bringing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
This is a striking and daring universal theology that drew no small amount of criticism and or course there are still many of John Paul II's co-religionists who feel uncomfortable with it.
Yet this vision – the spirit of Assisi – is precisely John Paul II's ideology both of the basis and the imperative for interfaith cooperation and common spiritual striving, while respecting difference.
In his 1995 address to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue he mentioned 4 forms of dialogue – life, action, theological exchange, and religious experience. It is the last of these, he declared, that gives "a depth and quality which will preserve these (others) from the danger of mere activism".
In other words, while working together for the betterment of our world is of great importance; for John Paul II the spirit of Assisi is much more than this. It is the sense that the Holy Spirit is to be found across the divides of religions and culture; and that our spiritual engagement with one another and especially our common but different spiritual strivings expressed in the different ways we relate to the Divine in our world, have great value and power. Indeed this Spirit of Assisi declares interreligious engagement and our respective prayers for peace – different but together – to be a religious imperative by which we may bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
May we be worthy of this vision.