By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Benedict XVI said this morning that the true value of his trip to Turkey this week is as a symbol of “dialogue and brotherhood,” as a “moment of understanding between cultures and between religions” and among “servants of peace.”
Speaking with reporters aboard the papal plane just before leaving Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, Benedict said it would be an “exaggeration” to expect “great results” immediately from the trip, but that its value lies in the opportunity for encounter it provides.
The trip is not a political exercise, the pope said, but rather a pastoral effort, with its defining element being a “common commitment to dialogue and peace.”
Aboard the Alitalia Airbus A-321, Benedict responded to three questions which had been collected from journalists in advance. The pope did not use notes, and appeared to speak extemporaneously. He apologized at the end for not having time for a full press conference.
Asked to address Turkey’s European aspirations, Benedict did not directly engage the country’s application for membership in the European Union. He recalled, however, that the modern founder of Turkey, Kemal Attatürk, had taken the French constitution as a model.
“Hence at the heart of modern Turkey is a dialogue with European reason,” Benedict said, suggesting that Turkey’s destiny is to integrate European reason with the “Islamic and Muslim roots” of the country, and that Europe and Turkey therefore have “reciprocal responsibilities.”
In that context, Benedict said that Europe today faces the challenge of cultivating a “healthy secularism,” meaning one that “underlines and conserves” the differences between the civil and religious spheres, but which also recognizes their “common responsibilities.”
A secularism which totally separates religion from civic life, the pope said, is “a strategy without exit.”
In that regard, Benedict said, Turkey must balance its secular approach with its religious heritage, constructing a society that is “open, tolerant, and with liberty as a fundamental element.”
Asked about the significance of his meetings with Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, Benedict said this is a situation in which “numbers don’t really count,” referring to Bartholomew’s tiny local flock of perhaps just 2,000 people.
“It’s the symbolic and historical weight [of the office] that matters,” Benedict said. “Constantinople was the second Rome and the seat of the great Byzantine culture. It’s a point of reference for the entire Orthodox world, and therefore for all Christians,” Benedict said.
“It has a symbolic importance still today, even if the patriarch does not have a jurisdiction like that of the pope. It’s a point of orientation for the Orthodox world.”
In that regard, Benedict said, his meeting with Bartholomew, bringing together “the two sister churches of Rome and Constantinople,” constitutes “a very important moment in the search for Christian unity.”
This symbolic encounter, Benedict said, “is not just empty, but is full of reality.”
Benedict said he begins the trip in a spirit of “great trust and hope,” counting on the support and prayer of many persons – including, he said, the Turkish people, “who want peace.”
“Turkey has always been a bridge between cultures, a place of meeting and dialogue,” the pope said.