Live on Al-Jazeera: Benedict XVI

You have to love Pope Benedict XVI’s opening statement at his meeting this morning with Muslim diplomats: “The circumstances which have given rise to our gathering are well known.â€?

Very direct. Very Benedict.

I’ve spent the past few hours reading reactions to the pope’s comments and talking to Catholics and Muslims about what this strange episode — centering around the pope’s use of a 14th-century quotation — will mean for Catholic/Muslim relations. Of course, nobody knows.

There are more than 1 billion Catholics in the world and more than 1 billion Muslims. The two groups have a long, sometimes violent, history. Four decades ago, Vatican II called for Catholics and Muslims to work “for peace and freedom for all people.” And yet, they seem to be in the early stages of trying to reach some sort of modern understanding.

It promises to be a very long haul, in part because the Muslim world has no clear leadership. The Vatican is accustomed to developing official “dialogues” with Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Jews and others. These talks move along slowly (and sometimes not at all), but everyone knows who they’re dealing with.

That’s why the pope’s meeting with 22 displomats from Muslim countries was striking. He greeted them one by one and urged an end to violence. Whether he apologized — or apologized fully — seems to be open to interpretation. At least some diplomats went away satisfied.

Interestingly, Al-Jazeera carried the pope’s speech live. And the Vatican issued a translation in Arabic.

Monsignor Ferdinando Berardi, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in New Rochelle, told me that today’s meeting was a “wonderful” symbol: “We will have misunderstandings, unfortunately. But if we keep an open mind and respect others, we can work out our difficulties.”

Sounds good. But what happens next? Will the pope continue to reach out to the consortium of Muslim leaders? Will Muslim leaders condemn the firebombing of churches in the Palestinian territories after Benedict’s initial speech?

Will today’s meeting go down as the start of something good, a sign of bad things to come or something in between?

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.