National Catholic Register


The Pope’s Love

Even angry opponents are touched by love.

BY the Editors

December 10-16, 2006 Issue | Posted 12/7/06 at 10:00 AM


Even angry opponents are touched by love.

A statue of the previous Pope Benedict, Benedict XV, was erected in Istanbul, Turkey, in thanks for his charity to “all people, regardless of nation or creed.” Now, in his historic visit, Pope Benedict XVI has shown the city a different kind of love.

Istanbul is a city with no great love for Catholicism. It was a great Christian city under seige by Muslims when the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus had his now-famous dialogue with a Persian scholar nearby. What he said about Islam and violence sparked fresh anger when Pope Benedict XVI quoted it more than 500 years later.

The world’s largest cathedral is in Istanbul — but it hasn’t been a cathedral for centuries. It taken over by attackers, functioned as a mosque for centuries, and is now a museum.

Istanbul is a city filled with hatred for Pope Benedict XVI in particular. A top-selling dimestore novel there told the story of a papal assassination. The Pope is used to being driven through city streets lined with pilgrims and well-wishers, but when Istanbul’s streets were lined with people greeting the Pope, they were likely to be protesters.

So it was that when Pope Benedict XVI visited Istanbul, showing great respect for its people and speaking gently of reconciliation, the world media saw his behavior as capitulation, or even cowardice. 

“The Pope Without His Sting” was the headline in The New York Times. If they were paying better attention, they would have seen that he was employing the sharper sting of charity.

After all, this is a Pope who has been urgently calling the Church to show such behavior in just such situations. In the introduction of his 2006 encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), the Holy Father gives a prophetic reason for his encyclical.

“In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant,” he wrote. “For this reason, I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others.”

The love he showed in Turkey took humility and courage.

There were many expressions of his delicacy. Ali Bardakoglu, the chief of religious affairs in Turkey, has been very critical of the Pope. So Benedict went to meet him and show his solidarity with him. This was seen by Turks as an important gesture of respect.

They were also very appreciative when the Pope prayed to the one God at the Blue Mosque. His moment of meditation there avoided any appearance of concession to Islam — he didn’t kiss the Quran — but it did reflect the Church’s regard and esteem for the religion.

Benedict even noted wryly at one event that Istanbul had received the honor of Capital of European Culture, and that Regensburg, Germany, never had. Regensburg is a city in which he spent many years teaching, but now it’s better known to us as the city where he spoke about Islam.

At the same time, the Pope didn’t give an inch to pressure on any of the important issues of our time. Press reports missed the importance of the Pope’s words about Turkey and the European Union. Pope Benedict did not call for Turkey’s full entrance into the EU. His joint statement with Patriarch Bartholomew tied that possibility to Turkey’s offering full religious freedom. In a country where the Christian churches are barely allowed to exist, that’s a challenge, not an endorsement.

Benedict also repeated the core message of his Regensburg address. He preached openly, again, that there is no room for violence in any religion worthy of the name.

In other words, he exemplified charity: deep respect for those who don’t believe, but the courage to say what needs to be said. We can learn from his lessons and apply them to our own lives. The Holy Father showed the way to deal with those with whom we have strong fundamental disagreements — disagreements regarding abortion, homosexuality, divorce and on and on — with humility and truth, both.

But his visit also teaches some lessons about charity that are bigger than our own lives.

One is that love strikes fear into the hearts of haters. Al Qaeda denounced the Pope’s visit as a crusader campaign and whipped up sentiment against him. Thus, an organization of hatred and violence quaked and fussed over the visit of one man of love to a Muslim nation. And with good reason. A Dominican priest living in Iran said that there would be 1 million Christians there overnight if the government changed.

But more importantly, the Pope showed how charity unites Christians and strengthens the weak so they can endure crushing burdens.

“This moment in my life I will treasure until the day I die,” an orthodox Christian told journalist Robert Moynihan. “It’s such a privilege to see the Pope come into our church. I keep thinking: ‘It is really happening, after all.’ And: ‘Thank you, God! Even though they have tried to suppress everything, [Christianity] still lives.’”