By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
I’m on my way to Rome this evening, preparing for Tuesday’s flight from Rome to Ankara aboard the papal plane to begin the pope’s fifth foreign trip, and his first to a majority Muslim state. It will be by far the most high-wire act of his pontificate to date, coming as it does in the wake of his Sept. 12 comments on Mohammad at the University of Regensburg, which set off a firestorm in the Muslim world.
Unlike Benedict’s other four voyages to date, this one will draw bell-to-bell coverage in the global press. Some 3,000 journalists will be on hand to chronicle the four-day trip; one indisputable index of the “news factor” is that CNN’s Anderson Cooper will be doing his show live from Turkey in conjunction with the pope’s visit.
Though most press coverage will focus on the Islam angle, that’s hardly the only level of significance for the trip. Lest one forget, the primary motive is actually to visit the Patriarch of Constantinople on his patronal feast of St. Andrew. The day after his election to the papacy, Benedict XVI, in an address to the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel, pledged to “work tirelessly for the reconstruction of full and visible unity among all the followers of Christ.” He added that he understood this effort will require “concrete gestures that enter into souls and stir consciences, inviting everyone to that interior conversion that is the presupposition of all progress on the path of ecumenism.” The trip to visit Bartholomew II, who presides over a beleaguered local flock of some 3,000 souls, 60 percent of whom are over 50, is one way to make good on that pledge.
Last week, I published an in-depth analysis piece in the National Catholic Reporter outlining the challenges awaiting the pope in this fascinating, complex country. That piece can be found here:
Turkey poses daunting tests for Benedict
Tomorrow, I’ll have a run-down of the pre-trip jitters in Turkey, including security fears and last-minute revisions to Benedict’s program. Watch this space every day for the latest on Benedict XVI in Turkey.