The pope’s other itinerary

I’ve been talking to people all day about Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to Turkey, which began this morning.

It’s funny, media reports have focused almost entirely on how the pope will be received by Muslims in Turkey, who might remember a little speech he gave in September. That’s a big storyline, no doubt.

But the papl trip was planned primarily so that Benedict could meet with the head of the Orthodox Christian world, “Ecumenical Patriarche Bartholomew.”: For Orthodox Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere, and for Catholics who care about ecumenism, Thursday’s planned meeting of the two giant figures is the big news.

The churches of the West and the East split in 1054. They began talking seriously again only in 1964. So when the leaders of the two communions get together — this time on the Feast of St. Andrew, a day of prime importance for the Orthodox faithful — it’s a big deal.

As Archbishop Demetrios, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the U.S., wrote in a special “encyclical”: on the papal visit:

“This visit is more than symbolic. It carries substantial meaning as an occasion for the Churches of the East and West to come closer to one another in mutual understanding, in accordance with the fervent prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ when He asked His Father that those who believe in Him “may all be one” (John 17:20-21). This visit gives substance to the words of the petition that we pray in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, “For the peace of the whole world, for the stability of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord.” Thus, this visit is an occasion whereby the words of our prayer have an opportunity to achieve a very real substance.

“Finally, the visit of Pope Benedict to the Ecumenical Patriarchate is important on account of its timeliness in our modern world, which has witnessed unprecedented acts of violence without reason, and an erosion of the capacity of human beings to recognize one another as sacred children of God. His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew advocates passionately for peace, tolerance, and reconciliation among all human beings; but he does so under very heavy conditions in a land where notions of religious freedom are approached quite differently than they are in our own country or in European countries. For this reason, the visit of Pope Benedict carries an added dimension, in that it will provide an opportune occasion for two world religious leaders to discuss important issues related to religious freedom, peace among human beings of all faiths, and matters pertaining to global security in our modern world.”

Istanbul, known as Constantinople until 1930, has long been the seat of the Orthodox Church. But the Orthodox population of Turkey has dwindled for decades.

Orthodox Christians have lots of complaints about how they are treated today by the Muslim majority, complaints that Benedict certainly shares. But he’s probably not in a position to voice many concerns when Turkey’s Muslims are hoping to hear reconciliary words from him.

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.