Pope Francis Faces Mecca

When Jorge Bergoglio became pope in March 2013, he took the name ‘Francis’. Asked why he chose the name–the first pope to do so–the Argentine bishop replied that he adopted the name out of his great admiration for Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). A lover of nature; a simple, humble monk who lived a life of poverty–is how Francis of Assisi is remembered today. Since assuming office, Pope Francis–like his medieval namesake–has demonstrated a humility and simple lifestyle that stands in stark contrast to that of previous popes. A lesser known fact about Francis of Assisi is his outreach to the Muslim world. In 1219, at the time of the Fifth Crusade, Francis of Assisi travelled to Egypt, crossed over into the Muslim enemy camp, and spent the next three weeks in the company of the sultan. No one knows what transpired between the sultan and Francis during this time. In my 1 April 2013 blog, I suggested that Pope Francis might emulate Francis of Assisi by reaching out to the Muslim world as well. And he has.

Pope Francis has just returned from a three-day visit to Turkey, a country with a Muslim majority of 98% and about 35,000 Roman Catholic Christians out of a population of 75 million. The pontiff’s trip began in controversy when the ‘humble’ pope became the first foreign dignitary to be a guest of Turkish President Erdogan at his new $615 million, 1000-room palace in Ankara–the largest presidential palace in the world and 30 times larger in size than the American White House. (A reprise of the ‘saint meets the sultan’, perhaps?) Environmental concerns and a court injunction to stop the work were ignored by the increasingly autocratic Erdogan. Those who felt uncomfortable with the pope’s visit to Erdogan’s illicit palace were told it was a matter of good etiquette. “Like any polite person, the pope will go to the place where the president wishes to receive him,” was the response from the Vatican.

Controversy arose again the following day in Istanbul when Pope Francis toured the Blue Mosque and stopped to pray alongside Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran. It was the pope’s idea for the two of them to stop and pray, reportedly. (I had the good fortune of being able to tour the magnificent Blue Mosque when I was in Turkey nine years ago. The picture of the Blue Mosque below is taken from a postcard I bought in Istanbul at the time.)

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I (r. 1603-17) who wanted to erect a mosque to rival the beauty and majesty of the nearby Hagia Sophia, Christendom’s largest and finest cathedral for over a thousand years. The mosque takes its name from the tens of thousands of blue tiles used to construct its interior.

At one point during their tour of the Blue Mosque, the grand mufti and the pope, turning towards Mecca, stopped to pray. Hands extended in the Muslim way, the grand mufti said a Muslim prayer. Hands clasped in front of him, Pope Francis stood beside him, silent, head bowed. (The pope looked very much the junior partner of the two, I thought.) Lest the Catholic pope’s actions be construed as praying to the Muslim Allah, the Vatican hastily labelled the pope’s gesture “a moment of silent adoration of God.”

Many view the pope’s “gesture” as nothing more than a demonstration of inter-religious harmony and wonder who could possibly take issue with it. Other see it–and I include myself–as yet another instance of inter-religious outreach going in the same direction. I don’t recall hearing that the grand mufti later accompanied the pope to Istanbul’s Catholic Cathedral where the two of them prayed together.

Is inter-religious outreach accomplishing what it is intended to do, that is, create religious harmony between people? Anyone watching the daily news knows that’s not happening. The place where inter-religious dialogue is having a visible impact is, ironically, in the Church. Churches are inviting Muslims to address their synods, to preach from their pulpits, to pray on prayer rugs in their church hallways. This past June, Allah was invoked for the very first time at the Vatican in the papal gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica, well away from any Christian iconography such as crosses. Inter-religious outreach is changing the Church, not the Muslim world. And the changes underway have only just begun, I suspect.

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