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PAPAL VISITS
from issue no. 11 - 2006

TURKEY. The reflections of one of the cardinals who accompanied the Pope

In the footsteps of Benedict XVI in Turkey


The travel diary of Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president emeritus of «Iustitia et pax»: «We can imagine how much this journey moved the heart and the spirit of the theologian become successor to the apostle Peter»


by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray


Benedict XVI and Ecumenic Patriarch Bartholomew I during the Byzantine divine liturgy in the patriarchal church of Saint George al Fanar, Istanbul, 30 November 2006

Benedict XVI and Ecumenic Patriarch Bartholomew I during the Byzantine divine liturgy in the patriarchal church of Saint George al Fanar, Istanbul, 30 November 2006

Very rarely has a papal visit been so followed, observed and commented on as that of Benedict XVI to Turkey. The focus was as much on the country visited as on the visitor because both were at the center of lively general interest: the one awaiting a new decision from the European Community, the other as a result of a speech that created considerable upheaval in the Muslim world. A visit announced as “high risk”, and accomplished, against every prediction, in an almost euphoric atmosphere.
If there were real danger for the Pope it was that of seeing his visit hover between pastoral and politics or dilute ecumenism in favor of inter-religious dialogue only. The ecumenical priority, however, was held to, with all the importance that Benedict XVI wanted to give it. Something that could not be taken for granted since the local authorities did not understand why a Pope should come from Rome to Istanbul expressly to come to greet the head of a small group of three thousand Christians to whom they deny the title of “Ecumenic Patriarch of Constantinople”, challenging the very existence of his function.
The visit to Patriarch Bartholomew I, that was in no way in one direction and a simple courtesy, had particular meaning for both, for it expressed the brotherhood of Peter and Andrew and went to the very heart of the ecumenic problem: that of the universal Petrine ministry. Father Congar’s notion appeals to me a lot: «Between the East and the West all the essential is identical and different. It is the identical that is different: the differences must be recognized and respected, they are differences in profound identity». Between the Catholics and the Orthodox it is not just a matter of ecclesiological adjustment but first of all of a love story to take up again stronger than ever, that is based on a common love of the Lord, the only true resource on the way to the visible unity of the Church.
Benedict XVI with the Grand Mufti 
of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, 
during the visit to the Blue Mosque, 
30 November 2006

Benedict XVI with the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, during the visit to the Blue Mosque, 30 November 2006

Paradoxically, what was ecumenically at stake in the visit of Benedict XVI was not that of improving relations between Rome and Constantinople, that are very stable, but, without any interference in the life of the Orthodox Churches, simply that of highlighting the importance of the function of the ecumenic patriarchy: it is not some species of eastern papacy, but its «primacy of honor and service» seems more than ever necessary today when the unity of Orthodoxy is threatened on the one hand by the vastness of its diaspora and on the other by certain pressures of religious nationalism.
Benedict XVI was for the first time visiting a country with a Muslim majority. It may seem strange that Professor Ratzinger had never set foot as a pilgrim in ancient Byzantium, the homeland of Saint Paul and Saint John, the home of the eight councils and of the great Cappadocian “Fathers of the Church”. We can imagine how the preparation and the rapid itinerary of this visit moved the heart and spirit of the theologian become successor to the apostle Peter. But everybody expected it in the face of Islam. What happened is what happens only with the guiding spirit of God. Take the official program of the journey... the visit to the Blue Mosque, decided only some days before the departure, was not planned. The official meeting of two days before in Ankara with the president for religious affairs seemed already remote. After the visit to the “museum” of Santa Sophia, there was the Pope, shoeless, as he entered the most beautiful and visited mosque in the whole of Turkey. It didn’t look as though he was walking on the razor’s edge or prudently along a crest. He listened carefully to the explanations of the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, and both stood with simplicity in front of the mihrab. The television cameras of the whole world showed them as if transfigured, so close one to the other, because both close to God. I was two meters behind the Pope, and I immediately thought of John Paul II, in March 2000, as he put a Biblical quotation into the niche of the Wailing Wall: that simple gesture was enough to bring a Pope close again to the Jewish people. Even simpler, equally strong, the inward look of Benedict XVI which seemed to reach all Muslim believers in God. The spontaneous reflections of the Grand Mufti on exiting from the mosque should be quoted. Let us reread what Benedict XVI said during the audience of 6 December: «Halting some minutes in meditation in that place of prayer, I turned to the only Lord of heaven and earth, merciful Father of the whole of humanity. May all believers acknowledge themselves His creatures and give witness of true brotherhood!»
elimina If there were real danger for the Pope it was that of seeing his visit hover between pastoral and politics or to dilute ecumenism in favor of inter-religious dialogue only. The ecumenical priority, however, was held to, with all the importance that Benedict XVI wanted to give it
Taking up the image of «concentric circles» used by the Pope in that audience to show the direction of his pastoral visit, we should not forget the true center: the two meetings with the Catholic communities. The first, at the “House of Mary” on the heights of Ephesus, was the typical encounter with an infinitely minority situation, but full of light and humanity: a small group of faithful and a pope who had become a country priest, closer than ever to his little flock, among whom there were also some Muslims who had come to venerate Meryem Ana. It was truly “mass to the people”, with a pressing appeal for peace, above all in the Holy Land. One sole, small regret for me (surely shared by Pope Ratzinger): the program did not include a halt in Ephesus itself, a unique site in the history of the early Church. And the last mass in Istanbul, just before returning to Rome, in the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, near the residence where for nine years Angelo Roncalli had lived as apostolic delegate, well reflected the catholicity of the Church: a Latin liturgy that was able to integrate harmoniously seven languages, among them Arabic, Armenian, Chaldean and Syriac rites and a choral with Iraqi refugees. In that assembly no Christian confession was absent, from Patriarch Bartholomew I to Armenian patriarch Mesrob.
Often I’m asked to explain the success of a visit that many predicted would be a disaster. Certainly, everybody did their bit, beginning with Benedict XVI himself. I admired his constant serenity, but above all the sense of proportion that guided him throughout the trip. He gave proof of a virtue (in the strong meaning of the term) that characterizes the Roman Church, discretio
In a visit in which no religious minority was forgotten, it is a pity that the Pope’s meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Isak Haleva, went nearly unnoticed. From the conversation I had with him I learned that his community is second in number in a Muslim country (23,000 members); Sephardi in rite, exiled from Spain at the time of the Inquisition, it enjoys a fair margin of freedom in Turkish society.
In the great mosaic of peoples, of cultures and of religions, the media that followed at great length the visit of the Pope, with its socio-political implications, not once referred to the situation of twenty million Kurds who live straddling five countries, a fair part of whom in Turkey. If geography is immutable, history, on its part, lags on uncertain roads: the pitiful wanderings of a forgotten people.
Often I’m asked to explain the success of a visit that many predicted would be a disaster. Certainly, everybody did their bit, beginning with Benedict XVI himself. I admired his constant serenity, but above all the sense of proportion that guided him throughout the trip. He gave proof of a virtue (in the strong meaning of the term) that characterizes the Roman Church, discretio, sobriety in words and deeds; it was very important in dampening animosities and breaking down prejudices. Without proposing to do so, it helped a great and noble country to show itself, to reveal itself to itself, to better understand its contradictions but also its legitimate aspirations. But the euphoria emerging everywhere must be tempered. Because the caravan passes, but the landscape remains the same, with its shadows and its lights. It is up to all of us to continue “to follow” the Pope in the pastoral visit through Turkey, which he will not stop returning to and going into, because he has told us: he has left a piece of his heart there.


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