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January 17, 2011

Pope Benedict's announcement at New Year's that he will travel to Assisi, Italy, in October to mark the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's meeting there with leaders of other faiths has not so far drawn much comment.

While it may be too much to say that he boycotted the 1986 interfaith meeting, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and other curial officials were cool to Pope John Paul's initiative. That he is now initiating a similar event is a matter of note.

Some felt the 1986 Assisi meeting gave the impression of being a "United Nations of faith," a fear that was not assuaged when Buddhists set up a shrine on top of the altar of a local Catholic church. To many, Assisi bolstered the notion that Christianity is just one faith among others.

Pope John Paul walked a fine line on that issue. Prior to the Assisi event, on a trip to India, he allowed a priestess of the god Shiva to anoint his forehead with a Hindu symbol. In Canada and other nations, he took part in aboriginal ceremonies.

In his popular book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he said the Assisi meeting convinced him that "the Holy Spirit works efficaciously even outside the visible organism of the Church."

Nevertheless, his 1991 encyclical Mission of the Redeemer held fast to the importance of missionary activity in bringing people to faith in Christ the unique redeemer. All of John Paul's actions were in synch with Vatican II teaching, but some people wondered what message was being conveyed.

Ratzinger, meanwhile, was walking a more clearly defined path. In 1996, he called interfaith relativism "the fundamental problem of faith in our time." Then in 2000, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued, under Ratzinger's signature, Dominus Iesus, a document that vigorously upheld the "exclusive, universal and absolute" role of Jesus as the one mediator between God and humanity as well as maintaining that the Catholic Church is "the single Church of Christ."

But the point of the Assisi meetings is not to make doctrinal statements. It is to show a united religious witness for world peace. For the 1986 meeting, Pope John Paul asked the combatants in the world's wars to lay down their arms for the day.

Apparently, no one heeded that request.

The witness is still needed. Religious divisions have been a source of conflict for centuries, if not forever. That the leaders of world religions can get together for a day and - in spite of huge differences in understanding the divine - still say that their faiths all call humanity to peace is of huge importance. Even if the world's news media ignore the event, their gathering is a clear statement that faith in God means peace, not war.

There are few examples of moral progress in the world. This is one.