Thursday, October 4, 2012

Assisi 2012 Where We Dwell in Common:
Pathways for Dialogue in the 21st Century
Leo D. Lefebure

Religious leaders and scholars from around the world gathered in the town of Francis of Assisi in April 2012 to discuss what it means for followers of different religious paths to dwell in common and how to journey together more fruitfully.  The conference was organized by the Ecclesiological Investigations International Research Network, led by Gerard Mannion of the University of San Diego in California, USA, together with an international committee.  Four intense days of discussions and prayer focused on Christian ecumenism, interreligious relations, and the relationship between faith and the world.
The prayerful atmosphere of Francis and Clare enveloped the entire weeklong assembly, as academic lectures and conversations intertwined with ecumenical prayers in the basilicas of St. Francis and St. Clare, as well as the former and current cathedrals of Assisi.  For the opening prayer, we gathered in the monumental Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which envelopes the small chapel of the Porziuncula (“little portion”) where Francis prayed and where he cut the hair of Clare, and also the nearby chapel of the Transitus (“transition”), where Francis died.  The sacredness of this and the other places of prayer profoundly enhanced the mood of the gathering, reminding us of the Franciscan heritage of seeking peace.  Each succeeding day began with “Soul Food,” a prayerful reflection on the lives and witness of Francis and Clare. 

There were presentations from senior veterans of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, including Paul Avis of the Church of England, William Rusch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Peter Phan of Georgetown University, and many, many others.  While most participants were Christian, scholars from other traditions also contributed.  A major factor enriching the conference was the success of the organizers in securing funding that allowed many graduate students and junior scholars from around the world to come.  Thus senior figures with decades of experience intermingled with beginning scholars with much energy and enthusiasm.

          Dwelling in common is often complicated by tensions related to religious differences, and so Assisi 2012 repeatedly addressed the difficult challenge of conflicts where religion plays a role in legitimating distrust, animosity, and violence.  On the first evening, Paul Arthur, professor emeritus of the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland,  offered hope based on situations such as Northern Ireland, where religiously motivated conflict had long seemed intractable.  Speaking from the experience of the transformation of this conflict, Arthur stressed the importance of unofficial diplomacy in shaping the climate of understanding, as well as the creative role the arts can play.
The following day addressed the challenge, “What Remains Divisive?”  The speakers at the plenary morning session present a sample of the diversity and concerns of the assembly.  Bradford Hinze of Fordham University in New York City offered a stirring call to prophetic witness, challenging the imposition of Greco-Roman categories on all the world’s experience and calling for full recognition of work for social and political justice.  Mary Getui from the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, addressed the challenge of the “postcolonial divide,” the painful legacy of inequality coming from colonialism.  Greek Orthodox theologian Elena Kasselouri-Hatzivassiliadi from the Hellenic Open University spoke about the ways in which gender inequality divides us and makes more difficult genuine conversation in Christian communities.  Responding to these three presentations was a native of Colombia, Deivit Montealegre, who is completing his Ph.D. studies in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
In another session, John de Gruchy, professor emeritus at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, spoke about tribalism and “the burdens of history,” exploring how to respond to difficult collective memories when reshaping a society.  Stan Chu Ilo, assistant professor at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, Canada, and editor of an online journal on African theology and social justice (, explored the major cross-cultural factors at work in Africa today and how these factors influence the conflicts raging there.  Ilo proposed the African understanding of participation as a basis for interpreting differences as potentially powerful resources for dwelling in common.
Many sessions addressed points of difference among the Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic traditions, seeking creative ways to understand ecclesiology in ecumenical contexts.  The third day addressed the topic, “Where We Dwell in Common.”  Jewish scholar Aaron Gross reflected on his own position teaching at the Catholic, Jesuit University of San Diego in California, USA, and on the transformation in Jewish-Christian relations in recent decades.  He called attention to the importance of clearing a space in which Jews and Christians can retain their differences and dwell “apart.”  Bahar Davary, who is also from the University of San Diego, reflected on the 2007 Muslim initiative, “A Common Word between Us and You,” based on the double command to love God and neighbor. 
The fourth and final day considered the challenge, “Re-energising the Ecumenical Cause.”  Theodor Dieter, Director of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, posed the question of how Christians will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.  Mennonite leader Larry Miller, Secretary of the Global Christian Forum, noted recent developments in Lutheran-Mennonite relations, including a 2010 join statement on their past history together with a service of repentance and reconciliation, seeking healing for 500 years of conflict.  Other speakers explored aspects of the Baptist, Pentecostal, and Byzantine Orthodox traditions.  Roger Haight delivered the closing plenary address on “Ecclesial Spirituality as a Basis for Living with Other Religions.”  At the closing banquet, there was thunderous applause for Gerard Mannion and the committee who worked tirelessly with him.  Mannion announced that Ecclesiological Investigations is planning to hold the next gathering in 2013 in Belgrade, Serbia, in honor of the 700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, issued by the Emperor Constantine, who was born in present-day Serbia.

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