Report by David Schütz, Executive Officer, Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission
27th October 2011
On 1 January 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he wished to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the historic meeting that took place in Assisi on 27 October 1986, at the wish of Blessed Pope John Paul II. On the day of the anniversary, 27 October this year, the Holy Father held a Day of reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace and justice in the world, making a pilgrimage to the home of Saint Francis and inviting fellow Christians from different denominations, representatives of the world’s religious traditions and, in some sense, all men and women of good will, to join him once again on this journey.
In conjunction with the Holy Father's Assisi meeting, gatherings also took place in major cities around the world. Here, the Faith Communities Council of Victoria cooperated with the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne to organise a gathering called "Assisi in Melbourne: Faith in Service of Peace." The Anglican Diocese of Melbourne kindly made available their historic "Chapter House" at St Paul's Cathedral for the event.
On Sunday 23rd October, sixty members of Melbourne's religious communities gathered for a one hour ceremony to commit to the service of peace in our city and our world. As we gathered, Cathy Connelly played for us on her celtic harp to appropriately set the tone of peacefulness. We were welcomed by Murray Davies, the chair of the FCCV and by the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, Bishop Mark Burton. This was followed by a series of readings and meditations from the twelve religious traditions represented: Baha'i (Susanne Haake), Brahma Kumaris (Christine Westbury), Buddhist (Venerable Horowpathane Sathindriya), Christian (Bishop Mark Burton), Hindu (Pandit Abhay Awasthi), Jewish (Rabbi Shamir Caplan), Muslim (Sheikh Abdinur Weli), Sikh (Ranjit Kaur), and Zoroastrian (Ervad Armin Dumasia). Between each reading, Glenn Sharp played quietly on the sitar.
Rabbi Caplan used a verse from the Jewish evening prayers related to the Jewish festival of Sukkoth (the "Feast of Tabernacles" or "Booths"): "May You spread over us a sukkah (tabernacle) of Your peace." He explained that the value of peace is so great that we pray for it even if it will be like a sukkah, the flimsly and temporary outdoor structures in which Jews live for the eight days of this festival. It requires effort and work to keep it standing and proof against the weather.
Many of the readings were read in the original languages of the sacred writings, such as the Koran and the Veda. Bishop Burton surprised us all by reading, beautifully and fluently, the Beatitudes from Matthew's Gospel in the original Greek!
Professor Desmond Cahill OMA, chair of Religions for Peace Australia and a member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission, was the guest speaker for the occasion. He told how he was first introduced to ecumenism (at later by extension into interfaith relations) by a visit to Assisi as a young man. He high-lighted the encounter between St Francis and the Muslim Sultan during the Fourth Crusade – a strange and seemingly naïve attempt at an interfaith encounter in the midst of violence and war. [Click here to download a copy of Professor Cahill's speech]
Melbourne Opera soprano, Rebecca Long, then sang for us the "Peace Prayer of St Francis" ("Make me a channel of your peace") to the accompaniment of the harp. While not by St Francis, this song embodies the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi's simplicity and poverty and was first published by Pope Benedict XV in L'Osservatore Romano to encourage peace efforts during the First World War.
The assembly then voiced together their "Commitment to Peace", which included rejection of violence and terrorism in the name of religion, mutual respect and esteem between people of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions, fostering the culture of dialogue, forgiveness for past and present errors and prejudices, taking the side of the poor and the helpless, and urging leaders of nations to make every effort to create and consolidate a world of solidarity and peace based on justice.
Following the ceremony, the Hindu Society of Victoria provided a generous afternoon tea (of curry puffs and cream cakes!) which allowed those who had gathered to spend a precious and joyful hour in conversation with one another.
Ironically, as this was taking place in the Chapter House in Flinders Lane, outside there was tension and some violence in relation to the "Occupy Melbourne" protest. By numerical comparison, our gathering was small, and yet I believe that in "Assisi in Melbourne" there was a true sign for the hope of a future of well-being and peace in our society.