Assisi 1986

Ecumania: Then and Now
Part I
11 February 2011

Despite a tendency on the part of the media to downplay the ecumenical antics of Papa Ratzinger, his latest move is causing quite a stir throughout the Catholic world.  What bothers the faithful who know better is the news from the Vatican that the pan-religious spectacle that took place at Assisi in 1986 is to be staged again this coming fall under papal auspices; this comes as a tremendous shock to those old enough to remember – and deplore – the first one.  Even true believers who have held Benedict up as a model of orthodoxy in contrast to his recent predecessors are now having to face up to a very hard question:

How can any supposed pope dare convene — or, worse yet, reconvene –– an assembly of pagans, heretics and schismatics, Hindus and Buddhists, Protestants and Jews, for the purpose of worshipping together with Catholics in the churches of Assisi, a city renowned for a saint who, besides establishing an order of friars and preaching so sublimely to his compatriots, strove heroically to convert the heathen, in his case the Moslems of North Africa?

Is this not an outrage?

Many seem to think so.  In a recent sermon posted online, for instance, Bishop Bernard Fellay, SSPX head who has been recently dialoguing with the Vatican, reverts to a tougher, more traditional, stance as he echoes the words of his former boss regarding the first Assisi event. Archbishop Lefebvre, of course, condemned this vehemently, and now his criticisms are both repeated and applied anew to the upcoming confab.  Indeed, Fellay goes so far as to suggest reparations are in order.  To pretend all religions adore the same true God, he says, is “absolutely false.”  On the contrary: as it says in Psalm 95, “All the gods of the gentiles are devils.”  Yes, he repeats, “they are devils.  And Assisi will be full of devils!  This is revelation; this is the faith of the church.”

Stronger yet are the cries coming from four bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Greek-Catholic Church, a group which, while recognizing papal authority, formed in reaction to current practices within their former eastern rite order which they deemed unorthodox.  Needless to say, the UOGCC is not in good standing with the current Vatican.  Most vocal is Bishop Elias Dohnal, who appears online in a GloriaTv video that shocks even journalist Randy Engel.  Considering how she has delved into the sordid details of clerical abuse, we might think she would take the current news in stride, but no, in a commentary posted on, she says Bishop Elias’ testimony caused her head to reel and heart to pound!

And it’s no wonder.  While the black-garbed cleric on screen does address Benedict as “your Holiness,” his severe tone of voice belies the usual respect rendered a pontiff.  Even viewers who don’t speak his language get the general idea, and the vocal translation sounding in the background does the rest, for the devil is in the details.  Not only does Bishop Elias call John Paul II an “apostate” for his actions promoting the former conference at Assisi, he also says Benedict’s plans to “repeat and canonize” the actions of his predecessor constitute a “total betrayal” of Christianity, of “Christ’s Mystical Body.”

Alluding to Benedict’s recent pledge to “renew the commitment of the believers of all religions to live their own religious faith,” Elias says that “to invite pagans who worship Satan to Assisi” and to encourage their “living their own religious faith is absurd.  To put pagan idolatry on an equal footing with the gospel” in this way amounts to “haeresis maxima.”

Compounding the problem is the fact that Benedict has announced plans to beatify his predecessor JPII this coming May l.  Yes, he actually set a date; should he go through with plans to “beatify an apostate,” Elias tells His Holiness, this “will become the day of your self-excommunication from the Mystical Body of Christ!  According to Galatians l: 8-9 you will fall under God’s anathema — a curse.”  Moreover, should the apostate-to-be go on to unify with the spirit of antichrist at Assisi, he “will become a grave digger of the Church.”


The only solution, Elias insists, lies in repentance.  For this Benedict must first cancel the planned conference at Assisi and instead do public penance for the heretical actions of John Paul II; second, cancel the latter’s beatification; third, remove apostate cardinals and bishops from office and consecrate true Catholic bishops who “will carry out an internal reform of the Church.”  As for any possible complications that might arise from the problem of invalid orders or sacramental forms, he does not say.  Perhaps these do not as yet concern him — and his brother bishops, who, along with Elias, signed a letter to His Holiness summarizing the points made in the video.  The written version is posted on their website.

A little less harsh but also pointed is a letter of protest addressed to the pope and signed by seven noted Italian intellectuals, namely Francis Agnoli, Lorenzo Bertocchi, Roberto de Mattei, Corrado Gnerre, Alessandro Gnocchi, Camillo Langone and Mario Palmaro. This was published last month in the newspaper Il Foglio and picked up by various websites in translated form.  Their target, to be sure, is Benedict’s plan to restage an event which had the effect of “relaunching in the Catholic world indifference and religious relativism.”  For the 1986 confab at Assisi promoted the idea among Christians that the teaching that the Church was “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic” was now “to be banished to the archives.”

Their recollections of the event include one of participants gathered in the sanctuary of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, lined up with live branches in hand, as if signifying that peace comes not just through Christ but from the likes of Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, Kali, etc.  Chickens were beheaded according to tribal rituals on the altar of St. Clare, and a statue of Buddha placed on the altar in the Church of St. Peter above the relics of the martyr Vittorino, killed in 400 A.D. to bear witness to his faith.  Animists invoked the spirits of the elements, while Muslims performed their rites in the city of a saint who had taken steps to convert them.  The effect of all this “praying together,” the writers insist “is to make many believe that all were praying to ‘the same God,’ only with different names.”

Regarding such practices, however, the Scriptures are clear: “Thou shalt not have false gods before me.”  And “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no man cometh to the Father but through Me.”

In contrast, the “spirit of Assisi,” they conclude, includes the belief that all conceptions “of the divine are of equal value,” that “all moralities” emanating from “all religions, are interchangeable.”  It suggests that the Church has capitulated and now teaches that “to pray to Christ, Allah, Buddha or Manitu is the same thing.  That animist and Islamic polygamy, Hindu castes or the polytheistic animist spiritualism” go “hand-in-hand with Christian monogamy and the love of the One Triune God.”

In support of their case, the writers cite Mortalium Animos by Pius XI.  Referring to such ecumenical encounters, that pope wrote:

Such undertakings cannot, in any way, be approved by Catholics, since they are based on the erroneous opinion that all religions are more or less good and praiseworthy, in the sense that all equally, although in different ways, manifest and signify the natural and innate sentiment that carries us towards God and pushes us to recognize with respect His power.  In truth, the partisans of this theory fall into a complete error, but what is more, in perverting the notion of the true religion, they repudiate it, and they fall step by step into naturalism and atheism.

As Catholics, we must agree, with the above — and with the basic thrust of the Italians’ letter.  If we stop short of crying “bravo”, however, it’s because of certain aspects with which we do take issue, one being their approval of Ratzinger’s “relationship with those Anglicans who are returning to unity.”  (These words, by the way, appear in the translation of the letter posted on Rorate Caeli but have been edited out of others.)  It makes us wonder how the Italian writers could fail to perceive how the “relationship with the Anglicans” does in fact reflect ecumenical beliefs that Pius XI would condemn in a flash.  Perhaps their problem is an ignorance of English, or of Reformation history, including Cranmer’s self imposed “godly order” and Book of Common Prayer, the latter being one of the “traditional” items Anglicans can now retain while “returning to unity.”

Which brings us to yet another problem with their letter.  Referring to past papal efforts to forbid ecumenical gatherings, it says that in 1893 a “congress of all religions” was organized in Chicago, “and in Paris in 1900,” but that “Pope Leo XIII intervened to forbid all Catholics to participate.”  This suggests that they stayed away from both –– but such was not the case!  While the pope did in fact forbid the faithful from attending the second event in advance, that is, before it could come to pass, he did so in light of the scandal surrounding their role in the first!  For Catholics did in fact play a big part in the World Parliament of Religions held at Chicago in September, 1893, as part of the Columbian Exposition –– or “World’s Fair.”

Chicago 1893

Plans for the event had begun several years in advance, with letters of support coming from the likes of James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul.  At their regular meeting held in November, 1892, the American archbishops approved Catholic participation, including by the laity, and appointed the Right Rev. John J. Keane, rector of the Catholic University of America in Washington to be in charge of arrangements.  After accepting the honor, the latter wrote:

 I ask leave to add the expression of my profound conviction that the project is an admirable one, and that it ought to receive the encouragement of all who really love truth and charity and who wish to further their reign among mankind.  It is only by a friendly and brotherly comparison of convictions that reasonable men can ever come to an agreement about the all-important truths which are the foundation of religion, and that an end can be put to the religious divisions and antagonisms which are a grief of our Father in Heaven.  Such an assemblage of intelligent and conscientious men, presenting their religious convictions without minimizing, without acrimony, without controversy, with love of truth and humanity, will be an honorable event in the history of religion and cannot fail to accomplish much good.

If his words sound naïve, they are nevertheless consistent with the goals for the event given by its organizers, led by the Hon. C. C. Bonney, prominent Illinois jurist and Swedenborgian, and John Henry Barrows, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Chicago.  Local helpers included all sorts of Lutherans, Universalists, Methodists, Baptists, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Jews.  Nor should we fail to mention the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, Patrick A. Feehan, D. D. who on opening day of the Parliament stood on a platform in front of the lively throng at the Chicago Art Institute, along with Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop P. J. Ryan of Philadelphia, Archbishop Redwood of New Zealand and one  local  layman, W. J.  Onahan, who served as secretary of the Catholic Congress being held in conjunction with the Parliament.

On this platform they were joined by prominent Protestants of every stripe, as well as Eastern Orthodox and Jews, a variety of Moslems, Buddhists, and Hindus, and at least one Theosophist, a Jainist and a follower of Confucius.  Oddly enough, despite the following from every corner of the British Empire, the Archbishop of Canterbury was not represented, having previously sent a letter of disapproval in regards to the venture.  The basis for this, he wrote, rests “on the fact that the Christian religion is the one religion. I do not understand how that religion can be regarded as a member of a Parliament of Religions without assuming the equality of the other intended members and parity of the position and claims.

While confused as to what exactly constitutes the “Christian religion,” he does make a good point regarding the “parliamentary” format.  And why did not one of our participating Catholic bishops think of it?  Did the Anglican leader have insights they lacked?  Is it not also interesting that this man should turn out to be Edward White Benson, father of Robert Hugh, who, after converting from Anglicanism, would, as a Catholic priest, write a string of books that included the apocalyptic Lord of the World?  Though that would be some years later.  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and suppose the top cleric in the Church of England at the time of the Parliament to have been a Romanist.  On the contrary: his letter goes on to say:

Then again, your general program assumes that the Church of Rome is the Catholic Church, and treats the Protestant Episcopal Church of America as outside the Catholic Church.  I presume that the Church of England would be similarly classified: and that view of our position is untenable.

But that was not the end of it.  For the opening ceremonies of the Parliament featured yet another prominent Anglican, Rev. Alfred Williams, Momerie, D.D., of London, who, speaking from the platform, said there was “one thing which, to me personally, casts a gloom over the brightness of the day, and that is the absence of my own archbishop.”  Furthermore, he continued, “I personally know that a large number of the English clergy and a still larger number of the English laity are in sympathy with your Congress today.  So that in spite of the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury is away, it still remains true that all the churches in the world are in sympathy with you and taking part in the Congress this week.”

Going on, he revealed his own intellectual bias and that of the gathering:

Of all the studies of the present day the most serious, interesting and important is the study of comparative religion, and I believe that this object lesson, which it is the glory of America to have provided for the world, will do far more than any private study in the seclusion of the student’s own home.  The report of our proceedings, which will be telegraphed all over the world, will help men by thousands and tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands to realize the truth of those grand old Bible words that God has never left himself without witness.  It cannot be — I say it cannot be — that the New Commandment was inspired when uttered by Christ and was not inspired when uttered, as it was uttered, by Confucius and Hillel.

The fact is, all religions are fundamentally more or less true and all religions are superficially more or less false.  And I suspect that the creed of the universal religion, the religion of the future, will be summed up pretty much in the words of Tennyson, words which were quoted in that magnificent address which thrilled us this morning:

 “the whole world is everywhere
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”

 The “new commandment” he mentions is no doubt that to love one another, since the theme of universal charity and brotherhood dominated the Parliament.  Not that such terms were defined precisely.  Generalizations abounded.  Take the motto that was officially adopted: “have we not all one Father?  Hath not one God created us?”  According to the official book on the event, this was suggested by the Rev. Dr. H. Adler, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, who presumably did not worship Christ or the Trinity.  The buoyant mood that prevailed despite the disparity of beliefs represented can be summed up by a few lines delivered by President Bonney during the opening ceremony:

This day the sun of a new era of religious peace and progress rises over the world, dispelling the dark clouds of sectarian strife.

This day a new flower blooms in the gardens of religious thought, filling the air with its exquisite perfume.

This day a new fraternity is born into the world of human progress, to aid in the upbuilding of the kingdom of God in the hearts of men.

Era and flower and fraternity bear one name.  It is a name which will gladden the hearts of those who worship God and love man in every clime.  Those who hear its music joyfully echo it back to sun and flower.


In this name I welcome the first Parliament of the Religions of the World.

Good grief.

 The fanfare at the opening also featured the singing of hymns — all Protestant and in English — plus the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer led by none other than His Eminence James Cardinal Gibbons.  According to the two-volume tome on the event that was produced by Rev. Barrows, the official form for this — which became known by participants as the “universal prayer” — was the Protestant version, also in English, beginning with: “Our Father WHICH art in heaven,” and ending “for Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever.”  Now, whether Gibbons himself mouthed these exact words we cannot say; neither, however, did he object to this or anything else on the agenda.  Not so far as we know.  Moreover, his own speeches, and those of his close clerical associates tend to blend with the general theme; certainly they do not contradict, much less attack the basic premises.

Thus the tone of his welcoming address to the Parliament; in the course of this he alludes to the “parable of the good Samaritan” who aided a dying man who was “his enemy in religion and in faith, his enemy in nationality, and his enemy even in social life.  That is the model that we all ought to follow.”  He trusted they all would “leave this hall animated by a greater love for one another; for love knows no distinction of faith.” And:

Christ the Lord is our model, I say.  We cannot, like our divine Saviour, give sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and walking to the lame and strength to the paralyzed limbs; we cannot work the miracles which Christ wrought; but there are other miracles far more beneficial to ourselves that we are all...capable of working, and those are the miracles of charity, of mercy, and of love to our fellow man.

Without defining theological terms, he does, elsewhere in his speech, give his basic stance:

I should be wanting in my duty as a minister of the Catholic Church if I did not say that it is our desire to present the claims of the Catholic Church to the observation and, if possible, to the acceptance of every right-minded man that will listen to us.  But we appeal only to the tribunal of conscience and of intellect.  I feel that in possessing my faith I possess a treasure compared with which all the treasures of this world are but dross; and instead of hiding those treasures in my own coverts, I would like to share them with others. . .

So far so good.  But readers must now take careful note of the way in which he seems to stray from this path:

 But though we do not agree in matters of faith, as the Most Reverend the Archbishop of Chicago has said, thanks be to God there is one platform on which we all stand united.  It is the platform of charity, of humanity, and of benevolence.  And as ministers of Christ we think him for our great model in this particular.  Our blessed Redeemer came upon this earth to break down the wall of partition that separated race from race and people from people and tribe from tribe, and has made us one people, one family, recognizing God as our common Father and Jesus Christ as our brother.

So here we have a prince of the Church uttering words bound to confuse.  Surely he knew better!  For while Christ redeemed the whole human race, it does not follow that all men now belong to one spiritual family, as His Eminence seems to say.  It is not a done deal.  To be sure, God, as Creator of all, is our Father in a natural sense, and all human beings do belong to the same species.  Also, the Holy Trinity includes the Father as well as the Son and Holy Ghost.  Christ’s coming brought us the opportunity to become adopted sons of the Father in a new, more spiritual way, one which brings eternal life.  For this, however, we have to be baptized into the Church, i.e. the Mystical Body, the source of sanctifying grace.  That is how we truly become adopted children of God in the fullest sense.  Redemption does not guarantee salvation, though Gibbons seems to confuse the two.  We are not automatically saved.

 The situation he describes of the whole human race accepting both Christ and God the Father may be the ideal, but it has never actually come to pass — not even now.  Which brings up another point: whereas the cardinal speaks of Christ as being our “brother,” this is generally the term we apply to another ordinary mortal, a fellow Christian, not the Son of God.  He is, after all, our King, our Saviour, the Head of His Mystical Body, i.e. the Church.  As for Gibbons, perhaps standing on a platform on the same level as a variety of heretics and pagans caused him to develop an exaggerated sense of inclusion.

But let’s not forget the Protestants. Their views of who is saved and who is not, of who is truly a member of the Church and who is not, are also pertinent here.  To be sure, even their definition of what comprises Christ’s Church in the broader sense of the word can vary.  While some can be quite narrow minded, others, even back in 1893, have tended to see the Mystical Body as a spiritual entity embracing all Christians — or Protestants, at least.  Thus the noted scholar and ecumenist Dr. Philip Schaaf says in his speech delivered at the Parliament in Chicago:

The Church of Christ has been one from the beginning, and He has pledged to her His unbroken presence “all the days to the end of the world.”  The one invisible Church is the soul which animates the divided visible Churches.  All true believers are members of the mystical body of Christ.

It’s interesting that this 19th century Protestant should sound like many of those currently running the post-conciliar Church of Rome.  Despite the traditional belief, given in Pius XII’s encyclical Mystici Corporis, that Christ’s Mystical Body is the visible, institutional Church, the new view is that the latter only subsists in the former.  Thus heretical persons or groups can be in “partial” communion!  Given Ratzinger’s role at the formative council, however, should we be surprised to hear him echoing the modernist version in his speeches?  Let’s turn, for instance, to his state visit to Britain this past September and listen to a bit of the homily he delivered at a massive  “mass” celebrated in Bellahouston Park,  Glasgow, on September 16, 2010.  Referring to ecumenical aspects of John Paul II’s visit to the realm 28 years ago, he says:

Much has happened in Scotland and in the Church in this country since that historic visit.  I note with great satisfaction how Pope John Paul’s call to you to walk hand in hand with your fellow Christians has led to greater trust and friendship with the members of the Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church and others.  Let me encourage you to continue to pray and work with them in building a brighter future for Scotland based upon our common Christian heritage.  In today’s first reading we heard Saint Paul appeal to the Romans to acknowledge that, as members of Christ’s body, we belong to each other (cf. Romans 12:5) and to live in respect and mutual love.  In that spirit I greet the ecumenical representatives who honour us by their presence.  This year marks the 450th anniversary of the Reformation Parliament, but also the 100th anniversary of the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, which is widely acknowledged to mark the birth of the modern ecumenical movement.  Let us give thanks to God for the promise which ecumenical understanding and cooperation represents for a united witness to the saving truth of God’s word in today’s rapidly changing society.

Note how he mentions the world conference in Edinburgh as being the first modern ecumenical conference, though it was primarily a Protestant affair, with no Catholics officially represented, and occurred roughly seventeen years after the World Parliament of Religions. Moreover, the Chicago spectacle, held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition,   was certainly staged on a grander scale, with thousands in attendance, including bishops and archbishops, and   encompassed a far wider variety of religions.  

Has he not heard of it?

Regardless, it’s interesting how his view of “Christ’s body” mimics that of Philip Schaaf, as opposed to Pius XII.  That is the obvious way to interpret Benedict’s advice to Catholics at his “mass” to “walk hand in hand” with Protestants, to “pray and work” with them in view of our “common Christian heritage.”  The very next sentence, quoting St. Paul, says that as “members of Christ’s Body,” we belong to each other and need to live together in “respect and mutual love.”  And if by now you still don’t get the hint that the “we” includes Protestants, that they are part of the larger “mystical” Church, there is also his prayer of thanks for the modern ecumenical movement.

How else are we to interpret his words?

Copyright 2011

Note: Our source for many of the above quotes, and the second photo, is the two-volume book entitled The World Parliament of Religions.  Containing speeches and other information about the event, it was edited by the Rev. John Henry Barrows and published by the Parliament Publishing Co. of Chicago in 1893.