Last weekend Pope Francis visited Turkey, a country where 99.8% of the population is Muslim and where there are only about 35,000 Roman Catholics - truly a peripheral choice, fitting perfectly into Francis’ focus throughout his pontificate. What I would like to do in this post is just to pick out a couple of my favorites from among the things the pope said and share with you three photos - the two at the top, of Francis praying with Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran in the Blue Mosque and the one in the middle of Francis - and with him the entire Roman Church - being blessed (and kissed on the head) by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
In his first address in Turkey, to civil authorities, Francis emphasized the centrality of human dignity and brotherhood:
“Today what is needed is a dialogue which can deepen the understanding and appreciation of the many things which we hold in common. Such a dialogue will allow us to reflect sensibly and serenely on our differences, and to learn from them.Later during the first day, Francis addressed the president of the Diyanet, the Department For Religious Affairs, denouncing religious extremism and fundamentalism:
There is a need to move forward patiently in the task of building a lasting peace, one founded on respect for the fundamental rights and duties rooted in the dignity of each person. In this way, we can overcome prejudices and unwarranted fears, leaving room for respect, encounter, and the release of more positive energies for the good of all.
To this end, it is essential that all citizens – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – both in the provision and practice of the law, enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties. They will then find it easier to see each other as brothers and sisters who are travelling the same path, seeking always to reject misunderstandings while promoting cooperation and concord. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression, when truly guaranteed to each person, will help friendship to flourish and thus become an eloquent sign of peace.”
“Particular concern arises from the fact that, owing mainly to an extremist and fundamentalist group, entire communities, especially – though not exclusively – Christians and Yazidis, have suffered and continue to suffer barbaric violence simply because of their ethnic and religious identity. They have been forcibly evicted from their homes, having to leave behind everything to save their lives and preserve their faith. This violence has also brought damage to sacred buildings, monuments, religious symbols and cultural patrimony, as if trying to erase every trace, every memory of the other.The next day, during his homily at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul, Francis focused first on the fundamental role of the Holy Spirit in our lives and then on the nature of diversity in unity:
As religious leaders, we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights. Human life, a gift of God the Creator, possesses a sacred character. As such, any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation because the Omnipotent is the God of life and peace. The world expects those who claim to adore God to be men and women of peace who are capable of living as brothers and sisters, regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural or ideological differences.”
“When we pray, it is because the Holy Spirit inspires prayer in our heart. When we break the cycle of our self-centredness, and move beyond ourselves and go out to encounter others, to listen to them and help them, it is the Spirit of God who impels us to do so. When we find within a hitherto unknown ability to forgive, to love someone who doesn’t love us in return, it is the Spirit who has taken hold of us. When we move beyond mere self-serving words and turn to our brothers and sisters with that tenderness which warms the heart, we have indeed been touched by the Holy Spirit.On the Saturday evening then came a particularly moving moment of “mystical tenderness” (as Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ put it), shown in the following photo and following these words by Pope Francis, addressed to the Patriarch Bartholomew:
It is true that the Holy Spirit brings forth different charisms in the Church, which at first glance, may seem to create disorder. Under his guidance, however, they constitute an immense richness, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, which is not the same thing as uniformity. Only the Holy Spirit is able to kindle diversity, multiplicity and, at the same time, bring about unity. When we try to create diversity, but are closed within our own particular and exclusive ways of seeing things, we create division. When we try to create unity through our own human designs, we end up with uniformity and homogenization. If we let ourselves be led by the Spirit, however, richness, variety and diversity will never create conflict, because the Spirit spurs us to experience variety in the communion of the Church. [...] Saint Basil the Great’s lovely expression comes to mind: “Ipse harmonia est”, He himself is harmony.
The temptation is always within us to resist the Holy Spirit, because he takes us out of our comfort zone and unsettles us; he makes us get up and drives the Church forward. It is always easier and more comfortable to settle in our sedentary and unchanging ways. In truth, the Church shows her fidelity to the Holy Spirit in as much as she does not try to control or tame him. And the Church shows herself also when she rejects the temptation to look only inwards. We Christians become true missionary disciples, able to challenge consciences, when we throw off our defensiveness and allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit. He is freshness, imagination and newness.”
“Andrew and Peter heard [the promise of joy]; they received this gift. They were blood brothers, yet their encounter with Christ transformed them into brothers in faith and charity. In this joyful evening, at this prayer vigil, I want to emphasize this; they became brothers in hope – and hope does not disappoint us! What a grace, Your Holiness, to be brothers in the hope of the Risen Lord! What a grace, and what a responsibility, to walk together in this hope, sustained by the intercession of the holy Apostles and brothers, Andrew and Peter! And to know that this shared hope does non deceive us because it is founded, not upon us or our poor efforts, but rather upon God’s faithfulness.
With this joyful hope, filled with gratitude and eager expectation, I extend to Your Holiness and to all present, and to the Church of Constantinople, my warm and fraternal best wishes on the Feast of your holy Patron. And I ask a favour of you: to bless me and the Church of Rome.”
The final day of Francis’ trip - Sunday 30th November, the feast day of St. Andrew, patron saint of the Orthodox Church - started with an address during the Orthodox Divine Liturgy at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul, where his focus was on the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and where he first underlined deeply personal nature of the Christian life:
“Meeting each other, seeing each other face to face, exchanging the embrace of peace, and praying for each other, are all essential aspects of our journey towards the restoration of full communion. All of this precedes and always accompanies that other essential aspect of this journey, namely, theological dialogue. An authentic dialogue is, in every case, an encounter between persons with a name, a face, a past, and not merely a meeting of ideas.Next, Francis reiterated the Vatican II Unitatis Redintegratio position that the Catholic Church recognizes that the Orthodox Churches “possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy” and that “it is of the greatest importance to preserve and support the rich patrimony of the Eastern Churches.” He then set out his vision for the road towards full communion:
This is especially true for us Christians, because for us the truth is the person of Jesus Christ. The example of Saint Andrew, who with another disciple accepted the invitation of the Divine Master, “Come and see”, and “stayed with him that day” (Jn 1:39), shows us plainly that the Christian life is a personal experience, a transforming encounter with the One who loves us and who wants to save us. In addition, the Christian message is spread thanks to men and women who are in love with Christ, and cannot help but pass on the joy of being loved and saved. Here again, the example of the apostle Andrew is instructive. After following Jesus to his home and spending time with him, Andrew “first found his brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus” (Jn 1:40-42). It is clear, therefore, that not even dialogue among Christians can prescind from this logic of personal encounter.”
“I believe that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation. Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit. I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.”And finally, he called for joint action already, as a consequence of being Jesus’ disciples, in three areas: the poor, the victims of conflicts and young people.
Next followed a common declaration by Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, of their desire “to intensify our efforts to promote the full unity of all Christians, and above all between Catholics and Orthodox. [...] asking our faithful to join us in praying “that all may be one, that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21).” And finally, Pope Francis went to meet with young refugees from Turkey, Syria and Iraq who were being looked after by Salesians in Istanbul, where he said:
“Dear young people, do not be discouraged. It is easy to say this, but please make an effort not to be discouraged. With the help of God, continue to hope in a better future, despite the difficulties and obstacles which you are currently facing. [...] Remember always that God does not forget any of his children, and that those who are the smallest and who suffer the most are closest to the Father’s heart.”As has been customary on Pope Francis’ trips, there was a press conference this time too during the return flight, where journalists could ask him questions directly. Here I’d just pick out his answer to a question about what praying in the Blue Mosque meant for him:
“I went there, to Turkey, as a pilgrim, not as a tourist. And I went there primarily for the feast [of St. Andrew] that we celebrated today: I came precisely to share it with Patriarch Bartholomew, with a religious motive. But then, when I went to the mosque, I could not say, “No, now I’m a tourist.” No, it was all religious. And I saw that wonderful place! The mufti explained things well to me, with such gentleness, and also using the Qur’an, which speaks of Mary and John the Baptist, he explained everything to me ... That’s when I felt the need to pray. And I said: “Shall we pray a bit?” - “Yes, yes,” he said. And I prayed for Turkey, for peace, for the mufti ... for all ... for myself, since I need it ... I prayed, really ... And I prayed for peace, above all. I said, “Lord, let’s put an end to these wars ...” So, it was a moment of sincere prayer.”