At the invitation of Benedict XVI, I joined 200 other religious leaders in journeying to Rome and then to Assisi to pray for peace. This is a brief record of that journey.
I arrived in Rome Wednesday, October 26, early in the morning. That meant I had the day to explore. I went with my new friend Stan Noffsinger of the Church of the Brethren to the Vatican Museum. I had been there twice before, but the museum is so large and contains so much—from the earliest Christian art, to Greek and Roman sculpture, to Renaissance masterpieces like the Sistine chapel, to modern religious art. After that, Stan and I toured St Peter’s cathedral, then had a marvelous Roman lunch. We then returned to the hotel where I turned in early to recover from jet lag and be fresh for the next day.
The marvelous journey to Assisi took place beginning early on Thursday, October 27. We were collected at our hotel and bussed with police escort to the Vatican train station. There we boarded a special train for Assisi. The journey was interesting. I sat next to a Moslem leader from Indonesia, and across from a Buddhist monk and a leader of Confucianism. As we traveled toward Assisi, crowds gathered at train stations to cheer us on. No doubt many were there to see the Pope, but I also believe many gathered to express their hunger for peace in the world.
Arriving at Assisi, we were met by more enthusiastic crowds as we made our way to the Basilica of Santa Maria delghi Angeli. Benedict greeted each head of delegation at the door, and then we made our way to the platform. There ten representatives of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, indigenous religions, and even nonbelievers made statements for peace. In his remarks, Benedict specifically said that peace was an aspiration for all humans, even those who profess no faith but are seeking truth.
We then were treated to lunch at a nearby convent. After lunch we were given private rooms where for an hour we could pray for peace.
The highlight of the day was a ceremony at the Piazza of Saint Francis. There representatives pledged that they would pray and work for peace. Again there was a large crowd whose faces shown with joy and hope. We concluded that ceremony with the prayer of Saint Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace,” then we entered the church of Saint Francis and paused at his tomb.
Then there was the train ride back to the Vatican and busses to our hotel.
Friday, October 28 began with another bus ride to the Vatican and an audience with the pope. He thanked each of the delegates for coming, and encouraged us in our peacemaking. Afterward we were given a splendid lunch.
That evening was one of the highlights of my trip. Members of the Community of Sant’Egidio hosted ten of us. Sant’Egidio is a community open to all Christians that focuses on prayer and serving the poor. For several years, we had our own chapter in Nashville, but unfortunately it ended. I was therefore particularly happy to see the mother community.
They took us first to the church of Saint Bartholomew, where the community has worked to uncover and tell the story of modern martyrs. In their words, these are not sad stories, but stories of Christian unity. It does not matter so much what type of Christian we are because when we share in martyrdom we are one with Christ and each other. The painter of a marvelous icon depicting 20th century Christian martyrs that is at the front of the church explained the meaning of the figures in the icon. We then went to a nearby church and experienced the worship of the community. Imagine a large church full of joyous worshippers of all ages, who meet every night! After that we went to the original home of the community—the convent of Sant’Egidio—for a marvelous meal.
Saturday, October 29, I was on my own. I decided to see as many of the major churches of Rome as I could. So using the Roman bus system, the Metro (subway), and my own two feet, I travelled to Santa Maria del Popolo, where I saw two Caravaggio paintings. Then to the massive church of Santa Maria Maggiore, past the Coliseum to San Clemente, a church built over a fourth century church that was built over an ancient temple to Mithras. Then to San Giovanni where a special service was in progress (I did not understand it because in was in German. It looked like most of the German speakers in the world were there!). I made a quick trip to Santa Croce, but saw little there because a wedding was in progress. Then to Saint Paul’s, dedicated to the apostle to the Gentiles. Then back to the hotel to rest.
Then the flight home.
Why did I accept this invitation from the Pope?
Because I come from a people who believe in prayer.
Because I come from a people who believe in peace.
Because I want to encourage our people and all people to pray for peace, work for peace, and live in peace.