The interfaith prayer gathering happening next week will carry Pope Benedict’s own stamp, according to CNS, and welcome into dialogue in a special way nonbelievers and agnostics:
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 XVI is clearly reaffirming the ecumenical and 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…
…The third and perhaps most striking element of Pope Benedict’s Assisi gathering is that the Vatican has invited five prominent nonbelievers to participate. The group includes the well-known British philosopher A.C. Grayling, who has argued that religion has had a disproportionately large influence in society.
The Vatican made a point of inviting them because, although nonbelievers, they are seen as actively engaged in a debate over ethics, metaphysics and truth. That reflects the aim of the Vatican’s new “Courtyard of the Gentiles” project, which seeks to promote discussions between Christians and nonbelievers around the world.
Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, is coordinating the Vatican project. He will host a round table discussion in Rome with the five nonbelievers and Catholic intellectuals the day before the Assisi encounter. In Assisi, one of the five, Bulgarian philosopher and feminist Julia Kristeva, will speak at the main papal event.
This is a riskier dialogue gamble than the Vatican normally takes, but it does seem to reflect a priority of Pope Benedict. On his recent trip to Germany, the pope shocked many listeners when he declared that agnostics who struggle with the question of God are closer to the kingdom of God than “routine” Catholics whose hearts are untouched by faith.