VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Buoyed by Pope Benedict XVI’s successful visit to Turkey, Vatican officials began trying to gauge its long-term effect on ecumenical and Catholic-Muslim dialogue in other parts of the world.
Would the rave reviews and upbeat headlines carry over into coming weeks and months? And in the case of Islam, would the pope’s outreach to a Muslim population on the edge of Europe make a similar impact in Arab and East Asian countries?
Vatican and other experts gave a tentative but hopeful “yes” to both questions. At the same time, they cautioned that ecumenical and interreligious dialogues are long projects, involving historical tensions that reach far beyond the 24-hour news cycle.
The most dramatic advance appeared to come in the Vatican’s relationship with Islam.
Several observers said that by praying in a mosque next to an Islamic cleric the pope showed that prayer carries at least as much weight as intellectual arguments in the difficult dialogue between the two faiths.
“The pope’s gesture in the Blue Mosque opens a new horizon in interreligious dialogue. It shows that prayer is the privileged path for the meeting between faithful of different religions,” said Italian Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni, a veteran organizer of interfaith meetings.
Vatican experts said the pope did not retreat from questions he raised in Regensburg, Germany, last September about Islam, reason and violence. In Turkey, too, the pope rejected violence in the name of religion; the difference was he clearly framed it in an expression of respect.
“The pope didn’t change his mind about what he believes. But Regensburg was speaking about Muslims at a distance from them and that led to misunderstanding and bitterness. This visit injected an element of human contact, which is key to any serious dialogue,” said Jesuit Father Daniel Madigan, director of the Institute for the Study of Religions and Culture at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University and an adviser to the Vatican on Islamic issues.
“I think that will have a broader effect in the Islamic world. All the responses I’m getting from Muslims around the world are positive and saying we need to keep the momentum going,” Father Madigan said.
Sources said the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was making plans for a number of meetings with Islamic scholars and groups in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, focusing in part on the questions raised by 38 Islamic scholars in response to the pope’s Regensburg speech.
“For these dialogues, the atmosphere created by the Turkey visit will be very important. They will not have to begin under the burden of getting things back on track again,” said Jesuit Father Christian W. Troll, professor of Islamic studies at the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, Germany.
Father Troll, a key participant in a closed-door papal symposium on Islam last year, said the pope made it clear in Turkey that human dignity, human rights and especially religious freedom must be the measure for Christian-Muslim relations.
But he said the pope linked this message with the high regard the church has for Muslims. In doing so, the pope showed that there is no “changing mood” in the Catholic Church on dialogue with Islam, Father Troll said.
“When the pope stood in the mosque, he made it clear that Christians and Muslims belong together — in our awareness of God and in our reverence. He brought out the common ground,” he said.
Father Troll and others also believe the papal visit may have implications for the wider global debate over a potential “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islamic countries.
“First, people can see the church does not believe in this business of a ‘clash of civilizations,'” Father Troll said.
Second, he said, is the question of Turkey’s request for European Union membership, which has drawn some unexpected Vatican support.
Father Troll said the church appears to be encouraging Turkey and Europe to arrive at a form of cooperative coexistence — diverse in faith, but allied in the “basic civilization outlook” based on peace, understanding and respect for human rights.
“If this does work out, Turkey could be a kind of laboratory for the wider problem between the West and the Islamic world,” he said.
The ecumenical gains of Pope Benedict’s trip to Turkey were less clear-cut.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, said the joint declaration between the pope and Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople could open up new possibilities of dialogue “not only between Rome and Constantinople, but also between Rome and all the other Orthodox churches.”
Cardinal Kasper, in remarks to Vatican Radio, referred to tentative plans to host the next meeting of the international Catholic-Orthodox theological commission next fall in Ravenna, Italy. Rumors have already circulated that the pope and Patriarch Bartholomew might personally open the meeting in order to give it added momentum.
One big question is how the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow will react to closer ties between the Vatican and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. As usual, there were mixed signals from Moscow after the Turkey trip.
Russian Orthodox Father Vsevolod Chaplin, vice chairman of the Moscow patriarchate’s external relations department, told the Interfax news agency that the papal visit was “indisputably important” for the future of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.
He said the joint declaration signed by the pope and Patriarch Bartholomew included “many correct thoughts about the development of the dialogue and cooperation between Orthodox and Catholic Christians.” These points should be followed up in talks between the Vatican and individual Orthodox churches, he said.
Meanwhile, the Italian weekly Panorama reported that the Vatican may try to arrange a meeting in Hungary next year between Pope Benedict and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, at a monastery that predates the East-West Christian schism of 1054.
Four days after the papal visit to Turkey, however, Patriarch Alexy renewed long-standing complaints of proselytism against the Catholic Church, and called on the Vatican to do something about it — another reminder that ecumenical and interreligious dialogue require persistence and immense patience.