In Istanbul: small steps towards ecumenical and interfaith progress
(Vatican Radio) On Friday November 28, Pope Francis touched town in Istanbul on the second day of his Apostolic visit to Turkey where he was greeted by the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew. Philippa Hitchen is accompanying the pope on this journey and filed this report on Friday’s events.
Pope Francis began his day in Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque, slipping off his shoes and spending several minutes in silent prayer, his head bowed in the direction of Mecca. It was the same gesture of respect and adoration of the All-Merciful God that Pope Benedict XVI had made exactly eight years ago, but the atmosphere on this occasion was more relaxed and friendly, as the Grand Mufti explained to his guest about the Koranic verses illustrated on the huge stones pillars and the lofty tiled dome.
The next stop on the agenda was a tour of the nearby Hagia Sophia, once the most impressive Byzantine basilica in the world, turned into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in the mid-15th century and then transformed into a museum when Ataturk founded the modern Turkish state. To gaze up at the ancient gilded mosaic of the Virgin and Child, in between giant black and gold medallions bearing the names of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad is a moving reminder of those past centuries of war and conquest, as well as the modern day conflicts exploiting interreligious tensions to threaten the lives of so many people throughout the neighbouring Middle East region.
In the afternoon, the Pope celebrated the only public Mass of his three day visit in Istanbul’s Latin Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Holy Spirit, where his predecessors, from Archbishop Angelo Roncalli to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have also come to worship and to encourage this ancient yet fast dwindling flock. Eager crowds of flag waving, chanting faithful greeted the smiling Pope as he stopped to release two white doves and chat to those gathered in the small courtyard beneath a statue of Pope Benedict XV, that tireless prophet of peace at the time of the First World War.
The liturgy reflected the diversity of this tiny Catholic community with ancient chants in Armenian, Chaldean, Syriac, Latin and Turkish, as well as an African hymn sung by some of the more recent immigrants to this country. Surrounded by Patriarch Bartholomew and leaders of all the other Christian communities here, Pope Francis gave a beautiful reflection on the Spirit who creates unity among believers. When we let the Spirit unsettle us to move us out of our comfort zones, turning instead to our brothers and sisters “with that tenderness which warms the heart”, then the Pope said, we have been touched by the Holy Spirit.
At the end of his action packed day the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch celebrated Vespers in the Patriarchal church of St George, during which the Holy Father again bowed his head to receive a blessing from the Orthodox leader, with whom he has struck up a remarkably strong friendship. Don’t forget it was the Patriarch who took the unprecedented step of coming to Rome for the inauguration of Francis’ ministry to invite him to Turkey to celebrate the feast of St Andrew on Sunday November 30th. Surrounded by black clad bishops from different parts of the Greek Orthodox world, the Pope spoke of the promise of true peace which Jesus made to his first disciples. Just as the brothers Peter and Andrew were transformed by that promise, Pope Francis said, so today the successors of Peter and Andrew have the grace and the responsibility to walk together as brothers in the hope of the Risen Lord. The Patriarch described the Pope’s visit as “an historical event filled with favourable signs for the future” and on both the ecumenical and interfaith front, I have no doubt that this visit to Turkey will indeed be another significant step on the road towards overcoming past divisions and forging new partnerships between all those who put their trust in God.