Friars of Assisi lose their independence as Pope reins in adventurous negotiators

The friars of the shrine of St Francis of Assisi, the world-famous centre of inter-religious dialogue and Christian pacifism, have been brought to heel by Pope Benedict XVI.

The mendicant friars, who welcome millions of pilgrims every year to the burial place of St Francis, have at a stroke lost the autonomy that made them one of the boldest and most adventurous institutions in the Catholic Church. Italian commentators on the right and left have hailed the move or roundly condemned it. The daily newspaper La Repubblica called it "a shocking initiative".

The friars were granted autonomy by Pope Paul VI in 1969, and the picturesque shrine of the saint in the Umbrian hills has since become renowned for its annual peace marches, drawing thousands of participants, and for two Assisi peace conferences, in 1986 and 2002, which caused outrage among conservative Catholics.

The first conference in particular, which saw the participation of native American and African animists as well as Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist leaders, still rankles with the conservatives. At the time the current Pope, then Cardinal Ratzinger and John Paul II's theological adviser, said of the meeting, "this cannot be the model" for ecumenical dialogue.

Vittorio Messori, a conservative Catholic commentator, said: "The Church has a long memory. Joseph Ratzinger has had an account to settle with the friars of Assisi since the inter-religious meeting of 1986. Now he has fixed it."

He went on: "Ratzinger has not forgiven the Franciscan community for the excesses of the first day of prayer of the religious leaders with [Pope John Paul II]. It was a mockery, as many said, that forced the hand of the Pope, and it was the friars who broke the agreement they had made. They went so far as to allow African animists to slaughter chickens on the altar of the basilica of Santa Chiara, and American redskins to dance in the church."

Other conservatives remembered bitterly the visit to Assisi of the nominally Christian Tariq Aziz, foreign minister to Saddam Hussein, in February 2003, part of a last-ditch attempt to halt the imminent Iraq war.

But others were dismayed by the Pope's decision to put Assisi under the control of the local bishop, a cardinal, and Cardinal Ruini, the fiercely conservative head of the Italian Bishops' Conference. "The fort of dialogue has fallen," lamented Livia Turco, a former minister and member of the opposition Democrats of the Left. "Shorn of their autonomy ... the Franciscans have had their hands tied and will no longer be the bridge between the Church and society."

The friars themselves were more diplomatic. "One Pope gives, the next takes away," said Fr Vincenzo. "When we decided to invite Tariq Aziz, one meeting was enough. Now who knows what we would have to do."

But what about that invitation, extended to the right-hand man of a bloody dictator? "Whoever arrives among you, friend or enemy, thief or brigand, welcome him with goodwill. That is the rule of St Francis, and that's what we follow."

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