A wordsmith pope learns to talk in pictures

Istanbul, Turkey

If Benedict XVI’s Nov. 28-Dec. 1 trip to Turkey leaves behind a defining image, especially in the Muslim world, it will no doubt be the shot of the pope and Istanbul's chief Islamic cleric, Imam Mustafa Cagrici, inside the city’s famed Blue Mosque, standing before the mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca, and praying side-by-side.

In an instant, that image projected a message of inter-faith fraternity that seemed in stark contrast to the specter of a “clash of civilizations” which followed Benedict’s Sept. 12 lecture at the University of Regensburg, which produced its own defining images of angry, and sometimes violent, protests across the Muslim world.

Later, Benedict said to his hosts, “This visit will help us to find together the means, the paths of peace for the good of humanity,” adding, “Thank you for this moment of prayer.”

To date, the line on Benedict XVI has been that this is a pope of words, often set in contrast with John Paul II’s mastery of gestures and symbols. Joseph Ratzinger is possessed of an extraordinarily refined intellect, and his natural medium is indeed the written word. This is a pope, after all, who had penned some 60 books by the time of his election, to say nothing of countless essays, lectures, journal articles and scholarly monographs.

If John Paul spoke in sound-bites, Benedict tends to feel more at home in carefully crafted Teutonic paragraphs. He has the capacity of a gifted professor to take complex ideas and express them in lucid turns of phrase that don’t require a license in theology to understand. He is a master logician, relishing the challenge of taking an argument apart, examining its elements, and then reassembling the whole in a new pattern that builds to a convincing conclusion.

His literary output as pope reflects that love of language. His homilies are generally profound, offering deep meditations on the scripture readings and on the liturgical feast, usually sprinkled with references to the fathers of the church drawn from the pope’s prodigious memory. (As a professor, Ratzinger would include lengthy passages from source material in his footnotes which he wrote down from memory, consulting the originals only to confirm the page numbers).

Yet if the written word provides precision, it’s also relatively inelastic, closing off any number of possible interpretations which images leave open. Language also takes time to digest, while images evoke immediate visceral responses. That’s why great leaders have always understood the power of the image to cut through complicated arguments and to reach the heart by a direct path.

In some ways, Benedict XVI has often had the unfortunate habit of clouding his own images with speech. When he visited Auschwitz in May, for example, pictures of him walking through the Arbeit Macht Frei gate, or standing in silent meditation before the “death wall,” suggested a spiritual figure struggling to come to terms with an awesome legacy of evil. In many ways, those images by themselves told the story – that Benedict grasped the urgency of the cry, “never again!”

When the pope delivered his homily, however, his insistence that the Nazis had “used and abused” ordinary Germans, his failure to say anything directly about contemporary anti-Semitism, and his argument that in killing Jews the Nazis were trying to destroy the roots of the Christian faith, all elicited mixed reactions, especially from some critics who felt the speech amounted to an attempt to suppress the uniquely Jewish dimension of the Holocaust. The fairness of such a critique aside, the reactions illustrate the inevitably mixed bag that explicit speech presents.

In a similar vein, the rap on Benedict’s Regensburg address was precisely that it exposed a pope overly reliant on lengthy and complex texts, tone-deaf to how lines which might have a logic in context, but which were nevertheless incendiary taken on their own, could be lifted out and shot around the world. Protests from Vatican sources that one had to “read the speech in context” were often greeted with incredulity, suggesting that this is not how the world of instantaneous mass communications works.

In Turkey, however, Benedict XVI seemed much more comfortable with allowing the pictures to speak for themselves.

One could, of course, interpret that moment of prayer in the Blue Mosque in different ways. Where some saw a towering image of respect and mutual reverence before the divine, others might perceive an act of Christian colonialism – a way of “planting the Cross,” so to speak, in a Muslim space. Still others might fret about religious relativism or syncretism, an unacceptable blurring of the boundaries between different faith traditions.

For once, Ratzinger the academic did not feel compelled to provide any gloss, and that strategy seems largely to have paid off. In most of the world, the image of his solidarity in prayer with the imam has been interpreted as the definitive riposte to Regensburg, neutralizing the threat of a “holy war” that the speech had created.

Nor was the moment of prayer an isolated case.

During his visit to the mosque, Benedict was not tight-lipped or awkward; instead, he appeared animated, pleased to be there, and respectful to his hosts throughout. The day before, he had playfully held aloft a Turkish flag, communicating as much in an instant about his respect for Turks as in numerous public utterances. He also celebrated Mass for a tiny flock in Ephesus, disabusing stereotypes of papal majesty and power without uttering a word of theological argument on the subject. On that day, Benedict looked and sounded every bit a pastor, in effect providing a symbolic statement about the roots of the Petrine ministry.

Yesterday, the shot of Benedict and Patriarch Bartholomew I holding hands aloft from the balcony of the Phanar, or embracing one another after signing their Common Declaration, probably said more about the progress of the ecumenical movement than either man’s written statements.

In that sense, the legacy of the Turkey trip may well be more than putting the relationship with Islam on a more positive footing, or marking another milestone along the path to reconciliation between the Christian East and West.

It may also mark the moment when this wordsmith pope learned to talk in pictures.

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