The Roman Catholic pontiff, who is 81 years old and in failing health, will travel by train Thursday with some 175 religious leaders, accompanied by Vatican and Italian dignitaries, to pray in the medieval hill-town 138 miles north of Rome. Authorities ordered exceptionally tight security, deploying a force of some 600 police and soldiers to guard the pope and his guests during their seven-hour visit to Assisi. A helicopter will track the train from above during its two-hour journey from the St. Peter's Railroad Station inside the Vatican to Assisi and the return trip.
Catholic churches in Rome, Assisi and Jerusalem held prayer vigils as the religious leaders gathered to spend Wednesday inside the Vatican Walls before departing at 8:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. EST) for Assisi. "Tomorrow I will go to Assisi where, together with representatives of (Christian) churches and ecclesial communities and of other religions, we will live a day dedicated to prayer for peace in the world," John Paul told pilgrims attending his weekly general audience Wednesday. "It will be a pilgrimage of hope in the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi, prophet and witness to peace."
"I am confident that such an initiative, beside the spiritual effects that escape human measurement, can contribute to orienting people and decisions toward sincere and courageous propositions of justice and pardon. If it does, we will have contributed to consolidating the bases for an authentic and lasting peace," he said.
Acting in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States blamed on Islamic terrorists and at a time of growing concern over escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land, John Paul is seeking to build a worldwide coalition of religions to press for an end to terrorism and war.
The Vatican announced Wednesday that it has acceded to the Convention on the prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxic Weapons to offer "moral support" for cooperation and prevention in the face of "the tragic events of Sept. 11" and "heinous acts such as the use of biological weapons."
The Polish-born pope, who helped to bring about the collapse of communism, said in announcing the pilgrimage on Nov. 18 that he wanted all the religious leaders, particularly Christians and Muslims, to "proclaim before the world that religion must never become the motive for conflict, hate and violence."
The 29 Muslims, including three clerics from Jerusalem, will make up one of the largest religious blocs. The religious leaders will assemble under a geodesic dome stretched across the Lower St. Francis Square to give testimonials to peace, then separate to pray according to their different rites. The pope will lead 32 Christian delegations in devotions in the Lower Basilica of St. Francis while representatives of other religions pray in rooms of the adjacent Sacred Convent of Assisi.
Among the Christians will be two bishops and a metropolitan representing the normally hostile Orthodox Patriarch Alexii II of Moscow, who has vetoed a papal visit to Moscow and bitterly attacked John Paul for traveling to predominantly Orthodox countries. Metropolitan Pitirim, patriarchal vicar of Moscow and No. 2 in the Moscow hierarchy, will lead the delegation.
Following prayers, the group will reassemble for lunch in the refectory of the convent, which suffered earthquake damage in 1997. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the pope has asked that the meal be "frugal."
The pilgrimage will culminate with another ceremony in the square outside the church in which the pope and the delegations will voice their common commitment to prayer, speaking in English, Arabic and Italian, and light a candelabrum. "Never again violence! Never again war! Never again terrorism! In the name of God may every religion bring to Earth justice and peace, pardon and life, love!" the pope will say, according to a text issued by his Office for Liturgical Celebrations.
John Paul is the second pope to travel by rail to Assisi. John XXIII visited the shrine of Loreto and Assisi on Oct. 4, 1962, the eve of the Second Vatican Council, riding in the private train of the president of Italy. This time the pope and his guests will travel in a regulation Italian Inter-City express with seven cars and modified only by the addition of the Vatican coat of arms on the outside of the cars. John Paul will occupy seat 71 in the middle carriage.
The train has been kept under 24-hour guard since a trial run earlier this month.