Friday, December 01, 2006

"The Gamble Paid Off"

Further burnishing his reputation as the "Comeback Pope," Benedict XVI left Turkey within the half-hour, heading back to Rome on yet another high note.
His first visit to a mostly Muslim country, held under tight security for fear of protests by nationalists and Islamists, was highlighted by a series of conciliatory gestures culminating in a stop on Thursday afternoon in Istanbul's famed Blue Mosque.

"The Pope's dreaded visit was concluded with a wonderful surprise," wrote daily Aksam on its front page.
"In Sultan Ahmet Mosque, he turned toward Mecca and prayed like Muslims," popular daily Hurriyet said, using the building's official name.
His gestures, including support for Ankara's bid to join the European Union and praise for Islam as a peaceful faith, seem to have persuaded the Turks to move beyond the tension following his speech quoting a Byzantine emperor as calling Islam violent....

Catholic officials also presented the mosque visit, where Benedict stood in silent prayer while Istanbul Grand Mufti Mustafa Cagrici prayed aloud, as a key moment of reconciliation.

"I would compare the Pope's visit to the mosque to Pope John Paul's gestures at the Western Wall," said veteran Vatican mediator Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, referring to Pope John Paul II's prayers at Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2000.

"Yesterday, Benedict did with the Muslims what John Paul did with the Jews."
This morning, in the four-day trip's last official event, the Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I exchanged celebration duties.

While Benedict attended Bartholomew's divine liturgy yesterday at the latter's compound of the Phanar, the pontiff celebrated Mass in Istanbul's Catholic Saint Esprit (Holy Spirit) Cathedral, with the patriarch in attendance.

From the Pope's homily:
Twenty-six years ago, in this very Cathedral, my predecessor, the Servant of God John Paul II, expressed his hope that the dawn of the new millennium would “rise upon a Church that has found again her full unity, in order to bear witness better, amid the exacerbated tensions of this world, to God’s transcendent love, manifested in his Son Jesus Christ” (Homily in the Cathedral of Istanbul, 5). This hope has not yet been realized, but the Pope still longs to see it fulfilled, and it impels us, as disciples of Christ advancing with our hesitations and limitations along the path to unity, to act ceaselessly “for the good of all”, putting ecumenism at the forefront of our ecclesial concerns, and not committing our respective Churches and communities to decisions which could contradict or harm it. Thus we will truly live by the Spirit of Jesus, at the service of the common good.

Gathered this morning in this house of prayer consecrated to the Lord, how can we not evoke the other fine image that Saint Paul uses in speaking of the Church, the image of the building whose stones are closely fitted together to form a single structure, and whose cornerstone, on which everything else rests, is Christ? He is the source of the new life given us by the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of Saint John has just proclaimed it: “out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water”. This gushing water, this living water which Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman, was seen by the prophets Zechariah and Ezechiel issuing forth from the side of the Temple, so that it could make fruitful the waters of the Dead Sea: a marvellous image of the promise of life that God has always made to his people and that Jesus came to fulfil. In a world where men are so loath to share the earth’s goods and there is a dramatic shortage of water, this good so precious for the life of the body, the Church discovers that she possesses an even greater treasure. As the Body of Christ, she has been charged to proclaim his Gospel to the ends of the earth (cf. Mt 28:19), transmitting to the men and women of our time the Good News which not only illuminates but overturns their lives, even to the point of conquering death itself. This Good News is not just a word, but a person, Christ himself, risen and alive! By the grace of the sacraments, the water flowing from his open side on the Cross has become an overflowing spring, “rivers of living water”, a flood that no one can halt, a gift that restores life. How could Christians keep for themselves alone what they have received? How could they hoard this treasure and bury this spring? The Church’s mission is not to preserve power, or to gain wealth; her mission is to offer Christ, to give a share in Christ’s own life, man’s most precious good, which God himself gives us in his Son.

Brothers and Sisters, your communities walk the humble path of daily companionship with those who do not share our faith, yet “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us adore the one, merciful God” (Lumen Gentium, 16). You know well that the Church wishes to impose nothing on anyone, and that she merely asks to live in freedom, in order to reveal the One whom she cannot hide, Christ Jesus, who loved us to the end on the Cross and who has given us his Spirit, the living presence of God among us and deep within us. Be ever receptive to the Spirit of Christ and so become attentive to those who thirst for justice, peace, dignity and respect for themselves and for their brothers and sisters. Live in harmony, in accordance with the words of the Lord: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
Last night, he visited briefly with the Armenian Patriarch, Mesrob II, saying in part:
Our meeting is more than a simple gesture of ecumenical courtesy and friendship. It is a sign of our shared hope in God’s promises and our desire to see fulfilled the prayer that Jesus offered for his disciples on the eve of his suffering and death: “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21). Jesus gave his life on the Cross to gather into one the dispersed children of God, to break down the walls of division. Through the sacrament of Baptism, we have been incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church. The tragic divisions which, over time, have arisen among Christ’s followers openly contradict the Lord’s will, give scandal to the world and damage that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature....

In the thirteenth century, Nerses of Lambron, one of the great Doctors of the Armenian Church, wrote these words of encouragement: “Now, since we all need peace with God, let its foundation be harmony among the brethren. We have prayed to God for peace and continue to do so. Look, he is now giving it to us as a gift: let us welcome it! We asked the Lord to make his holy Church solid, and he has willingly heard our plea. Let us climb therefore the mountain of the Gospel faith!” (Il Primato della Carità, Ed. Qiqajon, p. 81). These words of Nerses have lost nothing of their power. Together let us continue to pray for the unity of all Christians, so that, by receiving this gift from above with open hearts, we may be ever more convincing witnesses of the truth of the Gospel and better servants of the Church’s mission.

PHOTO 1: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi
PHOTO 2-3: Reuters/Patrick Herzog
PHOTO 4-5: Nikos Manginas/Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople