Istanbul — Visiting the ancient Christian community that is now but a small minority in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey, Pope Francis on Saturday called on the church to leave its "comfort zone" and to "throw off defensiveness" to overcome misunderstanding and division.
Speaking to a varied congregation of Latin Rite Roman Catholics, Eastern Rite Catholics, and Orthodox in a homily in Istanbul's small Latin Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, Francis praised diversity in the church and warned against trying to "tame" God by forcing uniformity.
The pontiff's remarks came just hours after he prayed with a Muslim leader at one of Istanbul's most famous mosques. Later, he visited Orthodox leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and asked for the patriarch's blessing, bowing in front of him to receive a kiss on the back of the head.
"The temptation is always within us to resist the Holy Spirit, because he takes us out of our comfort zone and unsettles us; he makes us get up and drives the church forward," the pontiff said at the Latin Rite church.
"In truth, the church shows her fidelity to the Holy Spirit in as much as she does not try to control or tame him," said Francis. "We Christians become true missionary disciples, able to challenge consciences, when we throw off our defensiveness and allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit. He is freshness, imagination and newness."
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"In our journey of faith and fraternal living, the more we allow ourselves to be humbly guided by the Spirit of the Lord, the more we will overcome misunderstandings, divisions, and disagreements and be a credible sign of unity and peace," he continued.
Francis' remarks Saturday came on the second day of his three-day visit to Turkey during a Mass with the Latin Rite Catholic community in Istanbul, which has just some 17,000 members.
Bartholomew was present at Saturday's Mass, along with a metropolitan bishop of the Syro-Orthodox church and representatives of Istanbul's Protestant communities.
Of Turkey's population of 76 million, 97 percent are Muslim.
Later Saturday, Francis visited the patriarchal church of St. George, where Bartholomew and the ecumenical patriarchate are centered. The bishops led a joint ecumenical prayer together before addressing one another.
After his remarks, Francis turned to Bartholomew and said he wanted to ask a favor: "to bless me and the church of Rome."
Walking toward the patriarch, Francis bowed to Bartholomew's chest, at which point the Orthodox leader planted a kiss on Francis' white skullcap.
In his remarks to Bartholomew, Francis meditated on the joy and hope given from God to God's people, as foretold by the prophet Zachariah. The pontiff related that promise to the roles of Sts. Peter and Andrew, brothers and apostles of Jesus from whom the Roman pontiff and the Constantinoplean patriarch trace their respective lineages.
"Andrew and Peter heard this promise; they received this gift," said Francis. "They were blood brothers, yet their encounter with Christ transformed them into brothers in faith and charity."
"What a grace, Your Holiness, to be brothers in the hope of the Risen Lord," said the pope.
For the Latin Rite Catholics at the Mass earlier Saturday, Francis' visit was unusually intimate and personal given their small number in the city. One member of the community said the pope's visit reminded her that their group is part of the larger church.
"It's good to know that even though we are a small flock, we are not forgotten," said Arusyar Safa, who spoke prior to the Mass.
"When you live in a country where you are a minority, it's like most of the time you live the Bible," said Safa, an Istanbul native. "Besides just proclaiming it, you live it. And that's how you give your Christian life."
Perhaps envisioning the pope's homily, another member of the community praised the different Catholic and Christian rites present in Istanbul.
"We have many different faces, different churches, different communities, different congregations," said Isabelle de Mannoury de Croisilles, a Frenchwoman who has lived in Istanbul for eight years.
"It makes many differences, but this gives us an opportunity to discuss together and to share something in common," she said.
Francis' visit to Istanbul comes after he spent Friday visiting the Turkish capital of Ankara, where met and spoke with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Prayers at mosque, interreligious agreement
The pontiff's remarks at the Catholic cathedral came after he had visited two of Istanbul's most historic sites Saturday morning: the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque, and the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Orthodox basilica that was converted into a mosque in the 15th century before becoming a museum in the 20th.
Arriving at the Blue Mosque, Francis was greeted by the Muslim Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Mehmet Görmez, along with another mufti and two imams. Following Muslim custom, the pontiff removed his shoes on entering the worship space.
The group toured the mosque together. Vatican spokesman Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi said upon seeing the grandness of the space, Francis told Görmez, "Not only must we praise God and glorify him, but we must also adore him."
Accompanied by dozens of photographers, the two religious leaders then paused for a moment of what Lombardi classified as "silent adoration." For more than three minutes, the two stood motionless in prayer or contemplation before the mosque's Mihrab, a niche in the wall present in mosques that helps Muslims identify the direction of Mecca.
Francis stood with his head bowed and his hands intertwined across his waist. Görmez had his hands open, palms facing up.
Lombardi said the adoration was "a beautiful moment of inter-religious dialogue." At one point in the religious leaders' brief visit, said Lombardi, Görmez asked Francis: "God is a God of justice and of mercy. We are in agreement on this?"
"Certainly," Lombardi said Francis replied.
Security for the pope's visit has been extraordinarily tight. Officials estimated that an estimated 6,000 police officers had been mobilized in Istanbul for Francis' visit. As the papal motorcade drove through the city, many police cars had their doors open, with suited officers standing in the doors as the cars moved so they could see the surroundings more clearly.
Francis a 'revolution' for Orthodox-Catholic unity
Francis, the fourth pope to visit the patriarchal church in modern times, will visit the patriarchate's church of St. George again Sunday to participate in the Orthodox celebration of the Feast of St. Andrew.
Some Orthodox bishops said that Francis' visit represents a new spirit of collaboration and possibility between the two traditions, which split from each other in the year 1054.
One Orthodox metropolitan, the rough equivalent of a Catholic archbishop, said the way Francis has been acting as pope has been a large step forward in Catholic-Orthodox relations.
"Historically speaking, I would call it a revolution," said Metropolitan John Zizioulas, leader of the Eastern Orthodox community in Pergamon and a noted theologian who has been co-chair of dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. "It's a very, very important development."
Taking the example that Francis refers to himself much more as the bishop of Rome rather than as pope, Zizioulas said that was "very important, theologically and ecclesiology."
"That brings the papacy very close to the Orthodox understanding because for the Orthodox every patriarch is a bishop, fundamentally," said Zizioulas, speaking at a press conference hosted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate Friday evening.
"The main thing is that he's the bishop of Rome and therefore the primacy is not the primacy of an individual, but the primacy of the local church and this is extremely important," he said.
Zizioulas also said that the recent synod of bishops in Rome on family life issues emphasized the important role that the Orthodox place on synodality, or the notion that a bishop or patriarch leads in communion with his brother bishops.
"One of the problems that we have to solve in our relations is whether the synod has a consultative role or a decisive role -- to what extent the synod can really decide or it is simply a body that suggests to the pope certain ideas and the pope then still decides," said Zizioulas.
"I think in the way things are developing, and particularly with the present pope, we're moving very much in the direction of giving to the synod, to synodality, a decisive and not just a consultative role," he said.
The Orthodox, said Zizioulas, "are watching to see how this synod has been functioning and we notice the openness and the freedom of expression ... which are really very positive steps."
Another Orthodox metropolitan speaking at the Friday press conference focused on the struggles that Christian community faces with issues of religious freedom in overwhelming Muslim Turkey, particularly an ongoing attempt to reopen the historic Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki.
The seminary, which traces its roots to the first millennium, was closed in 1971 when the Turkish parliament banned all private institutions of higher education.
"Halki seminary is not just a minor problem," said Metropolitan Elpidophoros, leader of the Eastern Orthodox community in Bursa and abbot of the school. "It's not just a school that is closed. Halki seminary is the possibility of this church to renew itself."
"If we have the freedom of worship in this country ... this is not enough if the church does not have the possibility in this worship to educate a priest who would then lead this worship, who would preach, who would bless the faithful," said Elpidophoros.
"If there is no possibility to educate this priest, this clergy, then the freedom of worship has a time limit that will end with the life of the priest leading the community," he said.
Religious freedom is a key issue for Christians in Turkey. While the Turkish constitution protects freedom of belief, in recent years Turks critical of president Erdoğan's government have said those protections are not practiced in fact.
In one example, most Christian churches are not designated as places of worship and are instead legally instituted as cultural places or centers of association. Orthodox churches, however, do not even have that designation and do not hold even hold legal title to most of the churches and property they hold.
"This institution legally does not exist," said Elpidophoros. "It exists only de facto in this country. There is no legal personality of this institution. This is the main issue that brings then all other problems related to the exercise of our faith."
"When human rights here are violated, this is an issue for our brothers in the west," he continued. "We are not brothers only on the theoretical issues ... but also the human aspects of life in our respective countries where we exercise our faith."
Both Elpidophoros and Zizioulas said there is much more today that connects Orthodox and Roman Catholics than separates them.
Mentioning the violence and struggle Christians face in the Middle East, where hundreds of thousands have fled ancient centers of the religion seeking refuge from groups such as the so-called "Islamic State," Zizioulas said no one bothers to ask what denomination a Christian belongs to.
"The difficulties which the Christians are facing bring us closer to each other because in those areas ... nobody asks whether you are Catholic or an Orthodox," said Zizioulas.
"It's enough that you are a Christian," he continued. "And therefore if those outside Christianity regard us as one family without the divisions with which we are accustomed ... whether we like it or not we are coming closer to each other."
"We live in a very important time ecumenically speaking with the present pope and the present circumstances and I hope this will make it more easy for us to unite also at a theological level," he said.