Editor’s note: Father Jonathan will be providing television and web commentary from Turkey throughout the week. Tune in tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET to see his report on "Hannity & Colmes," and check back for his daily web postings here.
Istanbul, Turkey — With protests against his visit escalating throughout Turkey, mild-mannered Pope Benedict XVI would have compelling reasons to stay put in his well-fortified Vatican City State.
On Wednesday, 39 members of a far right-wing nationalist group, the Great Unity Party, entered and occupied the most important cultural landmark in Istanbul. The Haghia Sophia is a former sixth century Byzantine church, turned mosque (1453), turned museum (1935). After yelling warnings to the Pope to not test their patience any longer, the occupiers said communal prayers and then were arrested. The following day, a judge released all 39.
These men will now form part of Pope Benedict’s unofficial welcoming committee.
Come to think of it, they may be joined by the 25,000 Turks who took to the streets yesterday to demonstrate against the Pope’s Tuesday arrival. A pro-Islamic group called Felicity organized the event with pre-fabricated signs calling the pope “ignorant” and “sneaky” and warning him to stay out of Turkey.
The expressions of disdain, or at least distance, have not been limited to radical groups. They are echoed and fortified, in fact, by attitudes at the very top of the political structures, which see the Pope’s visit as a too-hot-to-touch issue with few political benefits. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and its foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, will be out of town at a NATO conference during the papal visit. Bad timing? Maybe.
As I am writing this column, news is hitting the wires announcing last-minute arrangements by Prime Minister Erdogan to greet Pope Benedict in the airport before he leaves on other business. Good timing, for sure.
While the political cold shoulder is a tactical move before elections, and should not be considered anything more, it is indicative of an underlying distrust within public opinion of all things “Benedictan.” Even before Pope Benedict delivered his now infamous speech on September 12 in Regensburg, the Turks were skeptical, and perhaps afraid of Benedict’s ideas. They knew that in his pre-pope days, Cardinal Ratzinger opposed the entrance of Turkey into the European Union, pointing out the importance of preserving Europe’s geographical and cultural identity. According to Ratzinger, the significant economic and social advances of this secular Turkish state should be invested in forming bonds of cooperation with their Mideast neighbors, with whom they share closer cultural and historic ties. In his mind, rather than looking for a European life preserver, they should close ranks and bring moderation and stability into a region in despair.
So, with so much adversity, why in heaven is Benedict entering this hodgepodge of political, social, and religious tension?
I think it’s because he’s brave, and has a mission.
If he were interested only in meeting large numbers of the adoring faithful, he would do better to stay at home. There are more Catholics and curious well wishers on any given Wednesday morning in St. Peter’s Square for his public audiences than there are in all of Turkey (about 30,000).
Precisely because of his mission, his bravery is not bravado. It comes from a spiritual conviction that some things are worth fighting for — and even dying for. As I will discuss further in the coming days, on the air, and in this column, the Pope embarks on this difficult trip with a three-fold mission: (1) build bridges of unity with the Christian Orthodox community, (2) encourage the Catholic faithful, and (3) establish foundations for dialogue with Islam.
All of this from a pope who had been written off by the media as a quiet, media-shy, German intellectual, concerned primarily with streamlining Vatican bureaucracy and restricting theological runaways. Some novice pope-watchers went so far as to say Benedict’s would be a necessarily dull papacy. They theorized Ratzinger would serve as a simple transition from John Paul II, the media star, to a Latin American or African pope, who could then, without fear of comparisons to the JP II glory days, revitalize the Church.
This papacy may be transitional and relatively short (Pope Benedict is 79 years old), but it sure isn’t dull anymore! The explosive speech in Regensburg has become his unwitting media debut. It has served to take the cameras off of him and on to his ideas. That is precisely how he likes it.
This week, in Turkey, we will see that it is neither in the Vatican nor in his German homeland where Benedict feels most at home, it is in the world of big and important ideas. I think he’s got some good ones, and God knows right about now, the world could use a few.
While a few thousand protesters may get the bulk of the media attention, there are 67 million Turks. Pope Benedict sees in their respectful silence, and open minds, a welcome in its own right.
He will be speaking to them, and to us, about big and brave ideas.
God bless, Father Jonathan