If you heard anything about Pope Benedict XVI’s gathering with some 300 other religious representatives in the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi last month, it was likely one of two things: a fluff piece about the color and variety of the religious garb of those gathered, or reporting on the persistent controversy that has surrounded the event since Pope John Paul II initiated the first interreligious gathering in Assisi of prayer for peace a quarter century ago; namely, fear that it could give the perception that all religions are equally valid.
Other than being the host of the gathering, Pope Benedict had very little to do with the first story line. And Vatican officials dealt with the second by omitting the joint prayer that had been featured at the first Assisi event in 1986, and even the programmed time for prayer (but in separate Assisi locations) that had been part of the 2002 event.
Maybe because I covered the 2002 Assisi gathering — even traveling there on the “peace train” with Pope John Paul and the religious representatives roundtrip from the Vatican City State’s tiny railway station — I had a special interest in following last month’s gathering.
Two things in particular struck me: For the first time, invitations were also extended to four non-believers. One of them, a Bulgarian philosopher and feminist, was even asked to speak at the main papal event. The second thing that struck me was related: In his talk, Pope Benedict offered critiques of atheists and believers, but seemed to have nothing but praise for agnostics.
The pope has hailed agnostics before. During a Mass homily in late September while visiting Germany, the pope said that because agnostics “long for a pure heart” and actively are searching for God, they “are closer to the Kingdom of God than believers whose life of faith is ‘routine’ and who regard the Church merely as an institution, without letting it touch their hearts, or letting the faith touch their hearts.”
In Assisi, he again used agnostics to challenge believers like you and me, saying the inability of agnostics to find God is “partly the responsibility of believers with a limited or even falsified image of God.
“So all their struggling and questioning is in part an appeal to believers to purify their faith, so that God, the true God, becomes accessible,” Pope Benedict said.
Believers cannot consider God “their own property, as if he belonged to them,” the pope said, but instead should consider themselves “pilgrims of truth, pilgrims of peace” along with, as much as possible, other religious believers and even non-believers.
In recently announcing next year’s start of a Year of Faith, Pope Benedict cited a goal for Catholics of “purifying” their faith (and he called the searching attitude of agnostics an “authentic preamble to the faith”).
Anyone see a theme developing here?