Among religious leaders on the stage with Pope Benedict XVI at the World Day of Peace in Assisi last week was Stan Noffsinger, general secretary of the Church of the Brethren. The main message of the Oct. 27 event was that peace is a human right, Noffsinger said in an interview on his return from Italy.
The event was held “to discern and make a statement that peace is a human right for all people, regardless of their religious affiliation or not,” he said. “It is a right for every human being to live without the threat of violence, war, and violent death.”
Hosted by the Vatican, the day commemorated the 25th anniversary of a historic peace event led by Pope John Paul II in Assisi in 1986. The city some 100 miles north of Rome is known as the home town of St. Francis and is a center for Catholic peacemaking.
Noffsinger attended as a representative of the international Brethren movement. The invitation to a Brethren representative was issued by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and follows several years of heavy Brethren involvement in the Decade to Overcome Violence.
The Pope read a strong statement of commitment to peace at the close of ceremonies: “Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life, love!”
Noffsinger’s only disappointment in the event, he said, was lack of formal conversation about peace as a human right. “But that is offset by the countless number of private conversations we were able to have,” he added. “That’s probably more effective conversation.”
There was no formal worship or prayer, in a deliberate choice made by the Vatican. The Pope has “taken heat,” as Noffsinger put it, from critics both within and outside the Roman Catholic Church who have made accusations that the event moves toward religious syncretism. An invitation to nonbeliever guests also was a deliberate choice made by Pope Benedict XVI to distinguish this World Day of Peace from that held by the previous Pope, in order to create “a broader table than before,” Noffsinger said.
Noffsinger was one of 59 international guests seated on the stage with the Pope. Some 250 observer participants from around the world were seated at the front of the crowds that gathered in Assisi. Among those on the stage were Christian leaders such as World Council of Churches general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit; Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch; Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, leader of the Anglican Communion; Larry Miller, executive secretary, and Danisa Ndlovu, president of the Mennonite World Conference; Mounib Younan of the World Lutheran Federation; John Upton of the World Baptist Alliance, among many other representatives of worldwide Christian movements.
Interfaith representatives included Rabbi David Rosen of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and Kyai Haji Hasyim Muzadi, secretary general of the International Conference of Islamic Schools, alongside Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Sikh, and other leaders from major world religions, a representative of African indigenous religions, and even leading agnostics and atheists.
The Pope and official guests traveled by special train from Rome on the morning of Oct. 27, where they were met by crowds waiting at the train station in Assisi, Noffsinger reported. Thousands of people lined the motorcade route from the train station to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where a formal event took place in the morning. More people waited along the route to the Plaza of San Francesco where an open-air event took place in the late afternoon. “Most noticeable were the young people who were present and engaged in all of the event,” Noffsinger said. The pilgrimage ended with a visit to the tomb of St. Francis by the Pope and official guests.
During his trip to Italy, Noffsinger also had time to visit the Comunita di Sant’Egidio in Rome. Over its 40-plus years of existence, several members of the Church of the Brethren have spent time with this all-volunteer Christian community focused on service to the poor. Although Catholic-based, the community welcomes participation by believers from various traditions, and is marked by its youthful membership. Noffsinger estimated an average age of 30 among those who packed a church for the community worship service he attended.
Noffsinger has come away from Assisi with a challenge to increase commitment to peacemaking, both personally and as a church. On a personal level, it “challenged me to ask of myself, What is it that I will do for the pursuit of peace?'” he said. A first step he and the other US church leaders who attended will take is to share their reflections with President Obama, who issued an official letter to the Vatican commending the event.
The challenge for the Church of the Brethren is to ask, “What are we willing to surrender to be a community at peace?” Noffsinger said. He noted that the Assisi event adds impetus for the denomination to build on its work during the Decade to Overcome Violence, and to take seriously the call to “just peace” coming out of the recent International Ecumenical Peace Convocation. In 2013, the Brethren will have an opportunity to be part of worldwide Christian consideration of “just peace” at the next assembly of the World Council of Churches.
In the meantime, the challenge is “to re-evaluate what we are as a church, and if the manner of our living rightly reflects advocacy for God’s peace and justice that all may simply live,” Noffsinger said. “At the very heart of who we are as the Church of the Brethren is this core understanding of the two great commandments of Jesus. There are no qualifications of who the neighbor may or may not be. God calls us to love our neighbor.”
The Assisi event was webcast live by the Vatican Television Center. View a recording at http://player.rv.va/vaticanplayer.asp?language=it&tic=VA_N2GDSIOH.