Sailing from Byzantium
Pope Benedict XVI returned to Rome from Turkey last month a virtual conqueror. He had achieved the improbable during his four-day visit: substantive steps toward political, cultural, and religious rapprochement with the East. The pope had pleased his Turkish hosts by indicating a positive attitude toward Turkey’s eventual admission to the European Union (EU). He then managed to reassure aggrieved Turkish Muslims of his respect for their faith and their religious and cultural achievements—this barely two months after his ill-conceived remarks at Regensburg had sparked violent demonstrations across the Muslim world.
Finally, he met, prayed with, and offered support for his Orthodox confreres, particularly the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, and the Armenian Patriarch Megrob II. He accomplished all of this with an admirable simplicity and directness that were heightened by his humble demeanor and intellectual sincerity. In so doing, he not only won over many Turks, but furthered one of his chief stated goals as pope: to advance efforts at greater unity with the Eastern churches. Considering that the chances for failure along any one of these fault lines were considerable, and that there had been threats to his physical safety, we can all offer a collective Deo gratias for his achievements and for his safe return.
Still, there is more to be done. Benedict and Catholics in general must extend and expand Catholicism’s sometimes halting outreach to the Orthodox (who, it should be said, bear responsibility for their own truculence and divisiveness in these matters). Furthermore, not only the church but the West itself must develop greater appreciation and understanding for the broader Muslim world. The pope’s visit to Turkey was a good first step.
The joint statement of the pope and the ecumenical patriarch was succinct yet managed to address a skein of complex issues, touching on nearly all the neuralgic points raised by the trip. Theologically, it took up the need for Christians—Eastern and Western—to explore the sacramental nature of the church, and thus the ecclesiological significance of community and authority. It called on Orthodox and Catholics alike to “interpret anew”—for the sake of the world—the ancient traditions of Christianity, an acknowledgment that Christians must learn to hear and respond to the moral concerns and the religious needs of a new millennium. Benedict and Bartholomew next addressed hot-button issues: secularism, human rights, peace in the Middle East, the dignity of migrants, and the religious freedom of minorities. The last is a key issue of concern for Christians living in predominantly Muslim countries, and one Turkey must respond to if it hopes to achieve EU membership. The joint statement explicitly condemned “the killing of innocent people in God’s name,” a point Benedict had attempted to broach at Regensburg. Finally, the two religious leaders underscored the urgent need for all people to protect the world’s environment.
While the patriarch and the pope addressed these issues, it remains to be seen whether the energy evident in their meeting carries into the future. On interchurch matters, the reestablishment and recent meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox mixed commission for theological dialogue will be an important venue for assessing progress on theological issues.
Most commendable in the course of the papal visit was Benedict’s personal style—his intelligence and sense of respect—as he reached out to Muslims. His appreciation for their religious commitment in an increasingly secular and religiously skeptical world met with gratitude. At the same time, Benedict did not back down from his challenge to Muslims to show greater tolerance toward the religious minorities in their midst, and he underscored the need for people of all faiths to reject violence and to honor reason in their quest for truth. These are qualities the West and especially Christianity itself have come to learn only with considerable time and after much suffering. While the pope did not say it, these steps have been achieved in large part thanks to the establishment of liberal democratic, constitutional principles and governments that guarantee religious freedom and practice.
In his final homily in Istanbul, Benedict rightly underscored that Catholics desire to live in harmony with others: that they wish to practice their religion without seeking to impose it. Such modesty is a far cry from the often triumphalistic statements of earlier pontiffs. Perhaps it is is also a gift the West can increasingly share with others.
Read more of Commonweal's coverage of Benedict XVI here.