The 1986 event was heavily criticised for its syncretism, and, acutely aware of this, the Vatican tried to avoid similar criticism of the 2011 event. At a press conference held prior to the event, Romish Cardinal Peter Turkson said that each representative of the various religions would pray according to his own beliefs. And Giovanni Maria Vian, the Jesuit editor of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, said that neither John Paul II at the 1986 event, nor Benedict XVI at the 2011 event, intended to promote syncretism. He said, “Assisi is not just an ecumenical meeting. Ecumenism is an irreversible path…. Assisi is not just an inter-Christian meeting, but a meeting with the other religions, without a syncretism that mixes everything indistinctly.” Was he telling the truth? To find out, we must answer the question: What is religious “syncretism”? If we define it, we can ascertain whether the Assisi event was syncretistic or not.
One type of syncretism claims that there is no unique religious revelation, but rather that there are many ways to reach God. This is also known as religious pluralism. But this version of syncretism is not the Papacy’s version, because Rome believes that it alone is the one true religion, the one true Church, and that all others are false. Another type of syncretism, however, is that which seeks to create a single world religion by taking elements of each religion and merging them into a new religion, so as to make this new religion acceptable to all. This comes much closer to the Papacy’s vision of syncretism. Although not out to create a new religion, for it believes that it alone is the true one, it nevertheless has for centuries willingly incorporated into itself various elements of pagan religions, creating what Alexander Hislop rightly called a “baptized paganism”. Its adoption of the ancient heathen festivals which commemorated the birth and death of the sun god, renaming them Christmas and Easter and retaining all the heathen elements of those festivals after first “catholicizing” them, provides a very clear illustration of this; but there are many others. Believing itself to be the one true religion on earth, it nevertheless willingly takes on board all kinds of heathenish doctrines and practices, so as to maintain its hold upon the masses. According to its own official statement on the matter, issued at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these [other] religions. She looks with sincere respect upon those ways of conduct and of life which… often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” She believes she has all the truth, but other religions have some truth. At the same Council she declared: “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator…. Nor is God himself far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God….” And all this was again stated by the Roman pope, Paul VI, in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi: “The Church respects and esteems those non-Christian religions because they are the living expression of the soul of vast groups of people…. They are all impregnated with innumerable ‘seeds of the word’ and can constitute a true preparation for the Gospel”.
Seen in this light, then, the first Assisi event in 1986 was most decidedly syncretistic. In fact, this was virtually admitted by Jorge Mejia, who back then was the vice-president of the Pontifical Commission Iustitia et Pax. He said the Assisi gathering demonstrated the “hidden convergence” or “incipient but real unity” of the world religions which underlay their differences. And these differences, he added, “from God’s point of view did not constitute an obstacle to their coming together for prayer, but on the contrary made it desirable.” Words such as “convergence” and “unity” are unmistakable in their meaning.