Remembering the Sacrilege of Assisi I, Thirty Years Later

(Image: Pope John Paul II in attendance with leaders of various world religions at the ecumenical gathering in Assisi on October 27, 1986. Source: CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)

Today, on a fateful anniversary — the thirtieth anniversary of the original Assisi meeting, at which 32 Christian and 11 non-Christian groups were present — we would like to share with our readers the scathing account furnished by Henry Sire in his book Phoenix from the Ashes. This except will give a taste of Sire’s book, a must-read for all Catholics who seek to understand what has happened in the past fifty years and why.


An excerpt from Henry Sire, Phoenix from the Ashes (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2015), 382–88. With permission of the publisher:

Even graver, of course, than practical failure are the heretical principles which infused the ecumenical movement and by which it corrupted the understanding of the faithful. The indifferentism lurking in several of the Vatican Council’s documents was made explicit by the liberal ecumenists. The concept of ecumenism proclaimed by John XXIII in the Encyclical Ad Cathedram Petri (1959), which was that of a return to the unity of the Catholic Church, was replaced by one in which the Roman Church is one of a scattering of churches seeking mutual conciliation. This notion is presented as an established truth by the current Encyclopaedia Britannica. Fr. John L. McKenzie, SJ, a well-known scholar selected to write the article on Roman Catholicism, states that since the Vatican Council, “the Roman Catholic Church has officially abandoned its ‘one true church’ position.”25 In saying this, he is expressing what most Catholics have been led to believe, and especially what the consensus of the Church’s Modernist theologians has been teaching. The idea that the Church has officially adopted a heretical view of its own nature is one of the products of the Second Vatican Council and is the premise on which its ecumenical programme has been founded. Those who rely on a legalistic exculpation of the Church will protest that there is no doctrinal basis for it; but the substance of the matter is not the Church’s innocence in word but its guilt in promoting the heresy in practice.

Nevertheless, the worst enormity of the ecumenical movement has not yet been touched on. In this case, exceptionally, the guilt does not belong to the Second Vatican Council, nor to Paul VI. It is found in the perversion introduced into the ecumenical movement by John Paul II, who turned it from a search for Christian unity to a general convergence of world religions. Several times in his reign this false direction led him into shocking associations with paganism. Thus, during his visit to India in February 1982, he allowed a Hindu priestess to impose the mark of Telak on him, and another a few days later to smear sacred ashes on his forehead in a Hindu ritual. In 1995, in Australia, he conducted the beatification Mass of Mary of the Cross McKillop, at which the penitential rite was replaced by a ritual taken from aboriginal fire worship.

But these exhibitions were outdone by the pope’s project of summoning leaders of all the world’s religions to join him at Assisi in October 1986 with the object of praying together for world peace. At this meeting, under the pope’s presidency, representatives of many Christian churches, together with an assortment of Hindus, Tibetan lamas, Japanese bonzes, tribal snake worshippers, and animists of all sorts performed their respective rites, some of the less mainstream officiants showing a little embarrassment at having to exhibit their customs outside the privacy of their native groves. For a day, the town of St. Francis was given over to displays of pagan worship. Cardinal Silvio Oddi reported that a group of Buddhists entered the church of San Pietro, set up a statue of Buddha on the tabernacle of the altar and venerated it with prayer scrolls and incense; when a Benedictine priest protested at the sacrilege he was taken away by the police.26 These activities, all conducted at the pope’s behest, provoke the question what meaning John Paul attached to the first Commandment, by order and by importance, “Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.”

But before considering this moral point, let us look at the rationale of Pope John Paul’s policy of a union of all faiths, including paganism. The first question that arises is what duty Christians have to such a policy. What we owe to pagans is good sense as human beings and charity as Christians; but neither of those involves treating Christianity and mythological religions as all part of an underlying spiritual reality. A friendly meeting between the pope and the Dalai Lama could have little harm in it, but that does not imply behaving as if Buddhism were a legitimate expression of divine truth, let alone encouraging its practice. Next to this question, we may ask what use it can be for the Catholic Church to make a rapprochement to Buddhists, Hindus, and tribal shamans. These religions have no defined moral or doctrinal code with which Christianity could make common cause, and the practical aims that can be served by collaboration with Protestants do not apply.

In a more conceptual line, we may be tempted to ask what reasoning should prompt Christianity to consider itself at one with religions of ancestral mythology. We do not usually find medical practitioners going into congress with tribal witch doctors, on the grounds that they share a heart-warming impulse to cure the sick. A more analytical purpose is called for, and in Pope John Paul’s gesture one does not see what it is. The basis of Christian belief is not a human instinct of religion but the objective revelation of God. It may be an exaggeration to say that Christianity would rather take irreligious philosophers as its fellow seekers of truth; but it would have more of a logical basis to it, and give less of a false impression. From the conceptual point of view, John Paul II would have been better justified in holding meetings with philosophers and scientists than with worshippers of anthropomorphic and theromorphic gods.

Thus, we may ask what compelling cause moved Pope John Paul to hold this union of prayer, setting aside the Church’s tradition against fellowship with false religions. If the prayer meeting of the world’s faiths had been provoked by a visitation of the Black Death, there might have been voices heard asking why the intercession of snake worshippers was called for by the exigency. But it was summoned to pray for world peace, the cliché of Miss World contestants, and with that modish justification the voice of Sinai could be stilled. Linked to this question is another, regarding the particular direction taken by John Paul’s reaching out to other religions. We may ask why he stopped at the Hindu rites and the Australian fire ceremony; why, for example, did we never hear John Paul II declaring his admiration for polygamy as an expression, albeit not quite the Christian one, of the goodness of the married state, or praising female circumcision as an assertion, in its own truth-seeking way, of the virtue of chastity? The answer to that question lies not in principles of religious brotherhood but in the conventions of modern Western opinion. Polygamy and female circumcision are practices that sophisticated liberals feel themselves entitled to despise, whereas celebrating the equality of all religions is a position they reward with unqualified applause.

To illustrate this, we may go back to the fact remarked on earlier, the failure of the Church to seek alliance with Protestant fundamentalists in moral causes. We see here a test of the claims that the ideal of ecumenism is one of friendship with all religions. Of course it is nothing of the sort. Ecumenism as the liberals understand it means friendship with politically correct religions. To the high-caste ecumenist, Protestant fundamentalists are Untouchables, by whose proximity he would be defiled. As understood by John Paul II and the Church he led, ecumenism was rooted in the conventions of Western liberalism, which dictated that the movement would in no case seek practical policies for the strengthening of Christianity, but only gestures of empty amiability. John Paul II called the prayer meeting at Assisi because that was the sort of demonstration that Western opinion applauded. He may not have realised it, and zealous ecumenists will doubtless reject the charge, but that is because they have more unction than self-awareness. Naturally, nothing pleases unbelievers better than to see the Catholic Church put itself on a level with superstitious religions, and they will be quick to condemn the arrogance and bigotry of those who challenge the concept. With that position John Paul’s policy was well in harmony.

He took ecumenism on the course that any enemy of Christianity would have wished for it: he diverted it from a movement intended to unify Christians into one of aimless confounding of faiths. In its practical effects, the influence of the prayer meeting at Assisi could only be to encourage the belief, already well rooted among hazy-minded Catholics, that all the world’s religions are manifestations of the same great truth, and we should pick whichever one of them gives us the best of a warm inner feeling. This estimate will doubtless offend the adepts of liberalism, and they will call it an example of the bigoted absolutism that the Second Vatican Council repudiated. Those who think on those lines believe that the Church shows its Christ-like humility the more it abases itself and surrenders its claims. There may be many who are honestly convinced of that, not considering that it is also the Church’s duty to make itself known as the voice of divine authority. The view is also encouraged by those who do not want that authority recognised, and who prefer to obscure the difference between Christian humility and the degradation of the Church that its enemies would prescribe for it.

We need, however, to turn to a graver question. The appeal to the Second Vatican Council was freely made in justifying the prayer meeting at Assisi, and one would like to refute it by saying that nothing in the Council’s documents proposed such an act or authorised Catholics to associate with idolatry. One would say so if the appeal had not been made by Pope John Paul himself. He, who had attended all the sessions of the Council, emphatically asserted that the meeting of Assisi was a fulfilment of the Council’s spirit. There we have it, then, from no less an interpretative source than a pope. The meaning of the Second Vatican Council is that Catholics should encourage idolatrous worship and associate themselves with it in their prayers. If that is true, it is a far more serious indictment of the Council than any I have made hitherto. The religious subjectivism implied in the Declaration on Religious Liberty bears fruit in the syncretism of the Assisi meeting. The foundation of religion becomes not the God who reveals himself to man but the religious instinct of man, groping for faith, whatever its object may be. It will be a matter for future popes and councils to decide whether that was truly what the Council meant or whether the aberration belongs entirely to Pope John Paul II.

Needless to say, the pope has his official defenders, even from the vantage point of orthodoxy. There are those who rebuke his critics’ evil minds, protesting that he has been misinterpreted: that nothing was further from his intention than an indifferentist or syncretist concept of worship. The understanding of John Paul’s mind is indeed a difficult task, in this as elsewhere.27 Nevertheless, the disavowal does not take us very far; one might as well protest that Alexander VI has been misinterpreted as one who condoned clerical concubinage and nepotism. A pope’s actions are what they are, and scandal is not dismissed by distinctions between what he did and what he can be argued to have meant. However benign John Paul’s intentions were, they were tainted by a humanist philosophy that makes man the reference point of religious expression, and forgets that our duty to the one true God infinitely outweighs all other relations.

Let us be clear: the guilt of the prayer meeting at Assisi did not lie in the gathering of non-Christian religions. It lay in the acts of idolatrous worship that the pope caused to be performed as the deliberate component of his gesture. The teaching of the Church for centuries condemned the participation of Christians in the prayers of a false religion, let alone the countenancing of idolatrous worship. This is not the arrogance of an established church but goes back to the earliest time of Christianity. In the primitive discipline of the Church, idolatry was an unforgivable sin, one that debarred even a penitent sinner from return to communion. In its efforts to win their conformity, the pagan empire laid before Christians easy, formal gestures of loyalty: to swear by the genius of the emperor, to offer a pinch of incense to his statue. But the Church would have none of it; a pinch of incense offered to a false god was an enormity, to be refused even at the cost of martyrdom. When the Christians gained power in the empire, they did not set out to impose Christianity, but on one thing they were adamant, the prohibition of idolatry, of sacrifices to the pagan gods. The priests kept their wealth and honours, and pagans could continue to teach their myths, but Christians could not tolerate the practice of idolatry where they had the power to prevent it. We can imagine the incredulity and horror with which those early Christians, including the many who shed their blood for the true God, would have learnt that one day a bishop of Rome would gather together pagan votaries and invite them to perform their idolatrous rites, confounding them with his own.

But let us suppose that the usual appeal made to the early Church is rejected, that we declare it here to have been completely misguided. We can turn to scripture and ask where we find in it any hint of a duty of fellowship with pagan religions. The teaching is exactly the other way. We may listen to St. Paul again: “Bear not the yoke with unbelievers. For what participation hath justice with injustice? Or what fellowship hath light and darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath the faithful with the unbeliever? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God; as God saith: I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore, Go out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor. 6:14–17).

But let us insist that ecumenical virtue is too self-evident to be denied by apostolic gainsaying; let us look for it in the example of Christ himself, of that all-tolerant Christ whose spirit, according to the liberals, has been betrayed by a self-regarding church. This Christ, according to the same liberal doctrine, was the strictly orthodox rabbi who had no thought of deviating from traditional Judaism. And the idea is not without foundation. The reason why we get the impression from the Gospels of Palestine as a purely Judaic community is precisely that Jesus and his apostles were so careful in avoiding pagan contamination. The Hellenising rulers of Palestine had filled the land with theatres, gymnasiums, baths, and even pagan temples that showed the country’s immersion in the cosmopolitan culture of the time. If Jesus had wanted to teach a lesson of concord with all religions, he was surrounded by opportunities for it.

Instead he taught that “salvation is of the Jews,” with such strictness that it required a special revelation to St. Peter after the Ascension to persuade the apostles that Gentiles could be admitted to baptism. During his own mission, Our Lord would only preach to Jews, and sent his disciples only to them. When he was approached by the Canaanite woman who begged him to cure her daughter of possession, he refused at first to speak to her, declaring, “I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel. But she came and adored him, saying: Lord, help me. Who answering said: It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs” (Matt. 15:24–26). This, of course, was not an exhibition of bigotry; it was a lesson of the exclusive truth of divine revelation. St. John gives us the reply of Christ in the closely parallel encounter with the Samaritan woman: “You adore that which you know not; we adore that which we know” (John 4:22).

When the ecumenists insist, then, that all these texts are outweighed by the duty of charity and understanding, they are setting up a human standard that is contradicted by every guide given to us by tradition and scripture. But in the last analysis this is not a question of texts and arguments; it is a question of the absolute commandment of God. When it comes to John Paul II’s misguided gesture at Assisi, we may point to the contradiction with the perennial teaching of the Church; we may comment on the muddle-headed thinking that led John Paul to turn ecumenism into a rapprochement to pagan religions; we may lament the injury done to the recognition of divine truth; but the primary evil does not lie in those things. It lies in the fact that at Assisi in 1986 Pope John Paul II departed from the example of Christ, whose representative on Earth he was, and committed a grave and public sin against the first commandment.

Before Christ began his teaching mission, he was subjected to three great temptations, which had regard not to sin but to three essential errors that he might commit in attracting mankind to his truth (Luke 4:1–13). There were no witnesses to his encounter in the desert, but Our Lord told his disciples of it, to warn them against falling into those false methods. The devil came to him and first of all suggested that Christ should win over followers by offering them the material things they craved; but he replied that men must be persuaded not by bread but by the truth of his divine doctrine. Then the devil urged that Christ should overwhelm disbelief with great miracles that would leave beholders no choice but to accept him; but Christ replied that it is not for men to put God to the test, to make their belief dependent on blinding proofs. Finally came an astonishing bid for submission: “And the devil led him into a high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; And he said to him: To thee will I give all this power, and the glory of them; for to me they are delivered, and to whom I will, I give them.” He was offering to surrender all opposition to Christ then and for all time; and in return he wanted no more than a token: “If thou therefore wilt adore before me, all shall be thine.” The reward offered was incalculable; the price was no more than a gesture. But Christ replied that no good, however immense, can justify the turning away of the worship that is owed to God alone. Since the Second Vatican Council we have seen the Catholic Church fall into each one of the errors against which its Founder warned it: clamouring for stones to be turned into bread to feed the poor, flinging itself from the house of prayer so that the world might admire its abasement in the gutter, and associating itself with false worship in the hope that mankind should be won over by its humility and breadth of spirit.

  1. John L. McKenzie SJ, “Roman Catholicism,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, vol. 26, p. 912.
  2. Cardinal Oddi in an interview to Tommaso Ricci in 30 Dias, November 1990, p. 64.
  3. One analysis of Pope John Paul’s writings, with a disturbing estimate of his doctrinal understanding as a whole, is given by the Rev. Johannes Dörmann in Pope John Paul II’s Theological Journey to the Prayer Meeting of Religions in Assisi (Kansas City: Angelus Press, 1995). The author’s interpretation may be disputed, but it is worth remarking that he was not a follower of the traditionalist movement, let alone of any of its extremist tendencies.
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