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ASSISI Apr-12-2006 (1,000 words) With photos. xxxi

Independence of Franciscans at Assisi curbed, reasons disputed

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ASSISI, Italy (CNS) -- The Franciscan sanctuary of Assisi, long a haven of pilgrimage, prayer and social activism, has found its independence curbed under Pope Benedict XVI.

Inspired by the life of St. Francis and the interfaith outreach of Pope John Paul II, the Franciscan friars of Assisi sponsored a series of interreligious prayer meetings, peace marches and conferences on social justice over the last 25 years.

The guests included Buddhist monks and Muslim imams, no-global activists and death penalty opponents, and a slew of politicians. Former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, a Christian, lit a candle of peace in Assisi shortly before the United States invaded his country in 2003.

Seven months after his election, Pope Benedict issued a one-page document that gave the local bishop and the Italian bishops' conference control over all pastoral activities of Franciscans in Assisi. Later he named a papal delegate to keep closer ties with the friars.

In Italy, the move was immediately interpreted as a smack down. Vittorio Messori, who has written books with Pope Benedict, said the pope had, in effect, waited nearly two decades to settle an old score -- the 1986 interfaith prayer meeting for peace in Assisi, hosted by the Franciscans and presided over by Pope John Paul II.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope had expressed uneasiness over the meeting. In explaining why, Messori cited a story that has become something of an urban legend in Italy: During the 1986 encounter, he said, African animists slaughtered two chickens on the altar of the Basilica of St. Clare.

In Messori's view, the alleged sacrifice was emblematic of the abuses of dialogue at Assisi.

The Franciscans forcefully denied the chicken-slaughtering rumor, noting that the St. Clare church was not even open during the interfaith encounter.

In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, Conventual Franciscan Father Vincenzo Coli, the custodian of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, said the program for the 1986 meeting was set and monitored by the Vatican.

He laughed at the idea that the Franciscan friars had somehow hoodwinked Pope John Paul.

"It's offensive to Pope Benedict, too -- the idea that for 19 years he carried in his heart a desire for revenge. It's ridiculous," Father Coli said.

What was really behind Pope Benedict's recent move, Father Coli said, was that the Italian bishops had long wanted control over the Assisi sanctuary.

From an administrative point of view, he said, the idea of better coordination of pastoral activities at Assisi is logical. He and other Franciscan superiors have pledged to cooperate with the local bishop and the national conference under the new arrangement.

But Father Coli said the bishops would do well to remember that Assisi is a unique place of pilgrimage, with a mission that goes beyond diocesan or national boundaries.

"This is a universal sanctuary, and it cannot be closed inside the small world of a diocese," he said.

Father Coli said visitors to Assisi are about equally divided between pilgrims and tourists. But the pilgrims often end up interested in Assisi's art, and many of the tourists become fascinated by the story of St. Francis. That's one reason why openness to non-Catholics and nonbelievers is essential, he said.

"Over the last 25 years, Assisi has rediscovered a vocation: to be a place of dialogue, a place of encounter. We had this in our DNA, because of the charismatic figure of St. Francis, who is accepted and welcomed even by non-Christians," he said.

Asked whether Assisi has been politicized by some of the activities, Father Coli said that was always a risk.

"But if we're afraid of any possibility of being used, we'll never do anything. The key is to always act in a way that shows the world the values of St. Francis," he said.

The new rules requiring prior approval of activities affect both the Conventual Franciscans who care for the Assisi basilica, where St. Francis is buried, and the Friars Minor who care for the Portiuncula chapel outside of town, where St. Francis founded his order.

Bishop Domenico Sorrentino, recently appointed to Assisi, has been open and cooperative, Father Coli said. But already, the friars are discovering that most of their proposals are going to the national conference, because of their wider impact. So far, Father Coli said, nothing has been rejected. But he said the approval process could slow things down.

The bishops' conference, for example, is currently studying the Franciscans' plan to continue a series of concerts of sacred and nonsacred music, emphasizing three themes: the birth of Christ, human solidarity and ecology.

"It's a modest attempt to reach the many young people who need evangelizing. We hope (the bishops) approve it, but if they say no the world won't end," Father Coli said.

Many of the Assisi activities encourage dialogue, in the firm belief that while Christians need a strong faith identity they also need to be able to listen to and appreciate the good in the non-Christian, Father Coli said.

One event the Franciscans intend to continue sponsoring is a biennial peace march that has attracted up to 250,000 people -- including many European leftist political leaders. Father Coli said the church's participation over the years has helped bring balance to the event, highlighting St. Francis as a builder of peace but not necessarily as a pacifist in the modern sense of the term.

As with many of the Assisi activities, the march walks a fine political line -- a dimension of Italian life that Pope Benedict may not fully understand, Father Coli said.

"The pope is a very educated, respectful and attentive man. But Italy is complicated," he said.

The Franciscans in 2009 will celebrate the 800th anniversary of papal approval of the Franciscan rule. As part of the preparations for that event, Father Coli said it was hoped that Pope Benedict will visit Assisi next year.


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