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Three Popes in Assisi

· Dialogue, Conversion and Poverty at the Service of Peace ·

The day of prayer held in Assisi on 27 October 1986 was undoubtedly one of the most memorable events of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. On that occasion, the Council was creatively interpreted thanks to an unprecedented closeness between the different religions. In this way, the Polish Pope made an unthinkable leap forward in the dialogue between faiths. The new awareness is one and one alone: God has only one passion and one word: peace. And he should not be invoked to legitimize war and violence.

Henceforth, the day of prayer in Assisi was not only repeated — as in 1993 with the prayer for peace in the Balkans and in 2002 with the meeting of religious leaders following the attack on the Twin Towers — but it also grew considerably. The work of one day became a blessing for all, for the lowly power of prayer is mighty before God and involves all peoples.

Benedict XVI's relationship with Assisi and with its most illustrious son St Francis is personal, intimate, almost visceral. If, for John Paul II, Assisi was first and foremost a meeting place for different religions and thus for dialogue, what fascinates Benedict is Francis’ conversion and the radical living out of the Gospel embraced by this unique figure in the Church’s history. A reading of the discourses and addresses, in which he makes reference to the saint of Assisi over the first six years of his pontificate, makes this abundantly clear.

Pope Francis’ bond with the saint of Assisi was irrevocably established by the name which the first South American Pope chose as he began his Petrine Ministry. However, Pope Francis does not look at the saint through the lens of a fashionable romanticism; rather, he sees in him the great reformer of the Church through his radical choice for poverty, and even more concretely, his radical choice for the poor.

One of the most quoted expressions of the new Pope is “outskirts”, broadly understood. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand his harmony with the saint who chose minority [the Franciscans Minor] as the emblem of his order, reaching out to everyone just as they were in order to preach the Gospel which saves, first by example and then by words.

Francis’ convergence with Benedict XVI on the subject of the Saint of Assisi is easily identifiable in the Encyclical Lumen Fidei . In it, Pope Francis “has taken up the fine work” (cf. n. 7) of his predecessor and added a few contributions of his own. “[T]he light of faith [does not] make us forget the sufferings of this world. How many men and women of faith have found mediators of light in those who suffer! So it was with Saint Francis of Assisi and the leper” (n. 57). The theme of conversion which is very close to the heart of Benedict XVI, is bound to the encounter with the least, who are dear to Pope Francis.

Like John Paul II, his current successor has a clear vision of world peace to which the various religions, through mutual respect and the living out of their own identity, can and must contribute; “Faith and violence are incompatible,” Francis said during the Angelus on 18 August. He demonstrated this by calling for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria. Care for the poor and consequently, attention to global justice, is a recurring theme that distinguishes him. In his letter dated 4 September to Putin who was presiding over the G20 summit, Pope Francis spoke of peace within the context of a new economy which “allows a dignified way of life for all human beings”.

In Pope Francis’ visit to Assisi, the call “Francis, go and rebuild my house”, which warmed the hearts of millions of young people along Copacabana Beach on 27 July, cannot but resound once more, together with the call to the radical choice for poverty which made Francis a brother to all men. He took the last place, and for this very reason, he is close to us all.

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