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from issue no. 03 - 2007

A stirring pilgrimage

by Cardinal Paul Poupard

The birthday of the father of a family is a very dear chance for the children to express their love. For that reason, while we celebrate the eightieth birthday of the Holy Father Benedict XVI, I would not want to restrict myself only to honoring the occurrence. I want, instead, to turn to the Holy Father drawing on the memory of the heart, full of gratitude for many demonstrations of fatherly welcome, of meetings, of dialogue offered to all the world. One of these testimonies stands out above the others and touches me inwardly because I experienced it directly, in a special and privileged closeness: the pilgrimage to Turkey. Now that the spotlights are off and the media pressure abated, calm has returned and one may mediate on this visit that God accompanied from the beginning and that was thus able to take place happily, and has become a great gift for the Church and for all mankind.
It was a pastoral visit – I refer to the vision that Vatican Council II presented in the constitution Lumen gentium at nos. 14-16 – that, like the mission of the Church, unwound “in concentric circles”. In the innermost circle Peter’s successor confirmed the Catholics in the faith, in the intermediary one he met fellow Christians, while in the outermost he addressed non-Christians and the whole of mankind. The first day, in fact, took place within the third “circle”, the widest, to insist on how important it is that Christians and Muslims commit themselves together for mankind, for life, for peace and justice. Within the ambit of inter-religious dialogue, divine Providence enabled, almost at the end of the visit, an unplanned gesture, one that turned out to be very significant: the visit to the famous Blue Mosque of Istanbul. Holy Father, I preserve incised in my memory the few instants of contemplation in that place of prayer during which – I’m convinced – you addressed yourself to the sole Lord of heaven and earth, the merciful Father of all mankind, to ask blessing also on the meeting with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey. In the background to the memory appears Ephesus, and so the innermost “circle” of the visit, in direct contact with the Catholic community. In the garden in front of the sanctuary, a stirring pilgrimage of the faithful come from the nearby city of Izmir, from other parts of Turkey and even from foreign countries to participate in holy mass, made resound in my heart, in all their force and truth, the words: «Where there is Peter there is the Church». We truly felt at home in the “House of Mary”, and in that climate of harmony a prayer for peace in the Holy Land and in the entire world arose. The intermediary “circle” was the occasion of the feast of Saint Andrew on 30 November. In the footsteps of Paul VI, who met Patriarch Athenagoras, and of John Paul II, who was welcomed by Dimitrios I, the successor of Athenagoras, I saw you, Holy Father, reconfirm this gesture of great symbolic value with His Holiness Bartholomew I, underlining the mutual commitment to continue on the path toward the re-establishment of full communion between Catholics and Orthodox. The return to the innermost “circle”, the meeting with the Catholic community, present in its every component, in the Latin Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, in Istanbul, put its seal on this pilgrimage. May the almighty and merciful God help us build bridges of friendship and brotherly collaboration between peoples and nations, between cultures and religions, as Your Holiness never ceases to solicit us on every occasion.
In this atmosphere of joyful and thankful memory, in the great choir of declarations of affection and gratitude, of joy and fidelity, accept my most cordial wishes for your eightieth birthday, along with the most heartfelt thanks for your pastoral ministry for the good of all the Holy Church of God. May you continue your work of peace and reconciliation between peoples, of dialogue and encounter among cultures and religions. Thank you for the friendly recognition and amiability that heartens us each day! May the Lord grant you to lead the Church in wisdom and to continue to bequeath us the strength we constantly need to give witness before mankind, with sweetness and respect, to the hope that is in us (cf. 1Pt 3, 15). Holy Father, with a full heart of gratitude and filial respect, I express once more my best wishes, that now become prayer: may the Holy Trinity enlighten and bless you; may the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, accompany you and always let you feel the sweetness of her maternal comfort. Ad multos annos, Holiness!

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