By Jeff Diamant
c. 2008 Religion News Service
They gathered in the Italian hillside town of Assisi.
In October 1986, at the place where St. Francis famously preached repentance in the 1200s, top representatives from 15 religions stood together and prayed, one at a time, for peace.
The event was convened by Pope John Paul II, who came under criticism by conservative Catholics for appearing to treat all faiths as equally valid.
One of those critics was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Over the years, Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has come to praise the Assisi event, recently calling it a “moment of grace.”
On Thursday (April 17), in a different sort of interreligious event, he will meet with and receive religious gifts from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu leaders at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.
For the most part, Benedict has kept to the path set by John Paul to strengthen Vatican relations with non-Catholic religions.
In the first three years of his papacy, Benedict has visited a synagogue and mosque, following in the footsteps of John Paul, the first pope to do so.
Benedict plans another synagogue visit, on Friday in Manhattan. And meetings with a group of 138 Muslim clerics and Vatican officials are planned to start later this year.
At the same time, Benedict has sometimes taken a less conciliatory
— critics say less diplomatic — tack on interreligious issues:
— In a September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who called the prophet Muhammad’s religious innovations “evil and inhuman.”
— His decision to relax restrictions on the Latin Mass upset Jewish leaders because of a Good Friday prayer that called for the conversion of the Jews.
— He reaffirmed a controversial Vatican statement from 2000 that criticized other Christian denominations as defective, especially Protestant ones.
“John Paul and Benedict are two different men,” said Scott Appleby, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame. “They have different sensibilities, different temperaments, different emphases.
They share 99.99 percent of the worldview. It’s the .01 percent we’re talking about.”
It is Benedict’s relations with Muslims that have drawn the most attention.
Thousands protested in Muslim countries over the line from his 2006 Regensburg comments, which seemed included to illuminate a point about religion and reason. Some of the protests turned violent.
Whether Benedict meant for the line to be provocative is unclear. He later said he was sorry people were offended. Afterward, 138 Muslim theologians signed an open letter calling for Catholic-Muslim dialogue.
“John Paul’s style was, for the most part, with Muslims, to play down any conflict,” said John L. Allen, a Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, adding that John Paul met with Muslim groups 60 times.
“With Benedict, his attitude is, those bridges having been built (by John Paul), it’s now time to walk across them, that we have to get past the `tea and cookies’ stage and talk about real issues.”
Benedict’s desire to boost Vatican ties with certain Christian groups sometimes trumps the delicate sensitivities of interreligious dialogue, Appleby said.
“Pope Benedict’s heart is really in reunification or serious dialogue with other Christians,” Appleby said. “He believes Christianity is on its heels around the world and he wants a very vigorous leadership that restores Christianity to its central place in culture and in society.”
In July 2007, Benedict tried to bring a group of traditionalist Catholic schismatics back into the fold by relaxing restrictions on when a 450-year-old Latin Mass — known as the “Tridentine Mass” — could be said.
The move by Benedict, however, irked Jewish groups because of the Good Friday prayer for conversion. Later that month, Benedict angered Protestants by restating the essence of an 8-year-old church statement called “Dominus Iesus” that he had co-signed, as a cardinal, in 2000.
The document said Protestant groups are not “churches in the proper sense” because they lack the “apostolic succession” that the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches claim traces their origins back to Jesus’ 12 apostles.
The Vatican said the statement meant to correct wrong impressions about church doctrine. Critics found it gratuitously divisive.
The moves, however, were in keeping with Benedict’s priorities, Allen said.
“When this pope is forced to make a choice of promoting values, between those things that strengthen Catholic identity and those things that maybe at the same time risk being misunderstood by the outside world, his instinct is always to go with Catholic identity.”
(Jeff Diamant is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.