October 24, 2011

Slowly and carefully, the Vatican is setting the stage for the third edition of the interreligious "prayer for peace" encounter in the Italian pilgrimage town of Assisi.

The Oct. 27 event marks the 25th anniversary of the first such gathering. As in 1986, it is expected to draw representatives from many Christian denominations and more than a dozen other faiths.

In convening the prayer summit, Pope Benedict is reaffirming the interreligious outreach of his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II.

But the German pope has also marked out his own course, with modifications and additions that, in the Vatican's view, leave the event less open to misinterpretation.

For one thing, the participants will not pray together – at least, not in a formal fashion. They will gather at the end of the day for a moment of silence and testimonials to peace.

Although the border between prayer and reflection may be ambiguous in such encounters, it appears that Assisi 2011 will not repeat the formula of 1986, when representatives of each major religion offered a prayer at a final joint service.

Just as 25 years ago, participants will break off during the day for separate prayer services. But the difference is that this time around the prayers will be private moments in a cloistered monastery, not public performances throughout the town of Assisi.

In 1986, what generated the most interest among the media troops who went to Assisi were these colourful and distinct forms of prayer, many of which took place inside Catholic places of worship.

Buddhist monks chanted to the sound of a bronze gong. An animist from Ghana started a fire in a cup. A tribal chief from Togo invited spirits to enter a bowl of water. An aboriginal American "blessed" people on the head with eagle feathers.

It left some critics with the impression that Christian and non-Christian elements were being mixed together inappropriately.

The program for this year's encounter appears designed to ensure that the private prayers will not have a public audience.