Pope Benedict in the Blue Mosque

(This is Neil) John Allen’s December 8, 2006 “All Things Catholic” column asks seven different questions, including, most bluntly, “What gives?” Allen ends by noting, “If only Nixon could go to China, in other words, perhaps only Benedict could pray in the Blue Mosque … at least without explaining it to death.” Perhaps. But it might be worth trying to explain the Pope’s prayer in the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul, especially if interreligious dialogue proves to be a continuing source of controversy and uncertainty. This post is indebted to an article in Studies in Interreligious Dialogue last year written by the Sri Lankan theologian, Vimal Tirimanna, CSSR.


Fr Tirimanna begins by reminding us of three things. First, God is omnipresent; He is the Father and Creator of all. For instance, Tirimanna notes that St Augustine wrote about his encounters with God before his conversion – “Where wert Thou, then, in relation to me at that time, and how far away? … Thou were deeper within me than my innermost depths and higher than my highest parts.” We can also encounter God in places that are not “Christian.” (We can even note here that Jesus answers the Samaritan woman’s question about where to worship with the answer “neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” [Jn 4:22]: there is no necessary fixed place of worship.)


Second, although we shall see that we have to take care when we use seemingly obvious words such as “prayer,” we can say that “every religion,” in Pope Paul VI’s words, “raises us towards the transcendental Being, the sole ground of all existence and all thought, of all responsible action and all authentic hope.” Paul VI, in the same Easter message (1964), claimed, “Every religion contains a ray of light which we must neither despise nor extinguish, even though it is not sufficient to give man the truth he needs, or to realize the miracles of the Christian light in which truth and life coalesce.”


Thus, in 1986, Pope John Paul II held a religious meeting at Assisi because of these “‘traces’ or ‘seeds’ of the Word and the ‘rays’ of the truth” in other religions.” He recognized, “Religions are many and varied and they reflect the desire of men and women down through the ages to enter into relationship with the Absolute Being.”


The prayer at Assisi was not an “interreligious prayer” – the members of different religions did not pray together, but came together to pray separately, each according to his or her different religious tradition. The recognition that other religions involve “relationship with the Absolute Being” clearly does not mean that every religion has the same concept of God. And, without sharing the same concept of God, different people simply cannot pray in the same way. For what is prayer other than a drawing near to God? As the then-Cardinal Ratzinger noted, “‘Praying’ in the case of an impersonal understanding of God (often associated with polytheism) obviously means something quite different from praying in faith to the one personal God.”


But, still, even if “interreligious prayer” is discouraged (and events such as Assisi are somewhat irregular), there can still be interreligious dialogue based on different experiences of prayer. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s Dialogue and Proclamation recognizes a “dialogue of religious experience,” alongside the dialogues of life, action, and theological exchange, “where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute.” Fr Tirimanna, who has worked with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, notes that the Asian bishops commended this sort of dialogue in 1978, believing that it “will reveal to us what the Holy Spirit has taught others to express in a marvelous variety of voices.”


Third, without neglecting the theological differences between Christianity and Islam, the Second Vatican Council recognized positive elements within Islam:


But the plan of salvation also includes those wh0 acknowledge the Creator, in the first place among whom are the Muslims: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day (Lumen Gentium 3).


This means that Judaism, Christianity and Islam adore one and the same God. Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald notes that the three religions all have prominent liturgical expressions of this primary article of faith – the Jewish Shema, the Christian profession Credo in unum Deum, and the Muslim recitation of the shahada. Thus, when Christian and Muslims pray, even if they cannot pray together, they can recognize that their prayers are addressed to the same merciful God.


Fr Tirimanna’s point is that the Pope’s prayer in the Blue Mosque did not have to be “explained to death.” Catholic theology would certainly lead us to say that a Catholic could pray in a mosque. The Catholic could do so while recognizing and valuing the theological significance of the mosque. The Catholic could even pray alongside a Grand Mufti, recognizing that, although he could not fully share in the Mufti’s words, or the Muslim cleric in his, they were praying to the same God. (Of course, whether this sort of prayer should be a normal and frequent part of a bishop’s religious life is a somewhat different question.)


What happened, then, when the Holy Father entered the mosque with Mustafa Cagrici, the Grand Mufti of Istanbul and Emanullah Hatiboglu, the mosque’s imam? The Grand Mufti explained something of Muslim prayer to the Pope and began to pray facing the mirhab. The Pope then seemed to pray and the television cameras caught him moving his lips. Afterwards, he told the Grand Mufti, “Thanks for this moment of prayer!” The Grand Mufti himself told a reporter, “I experienced an atmosphere of great intensity when we were united in prayer.” The President of the Commission for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue in the Italian Episcopal Conference, Bishop Vincenzo Paglia, said that “without falling into any type of confusion and relativism” the pope went forward in keeping with the “spirit of Assisi.” This implied that it was prayer. Others, however, seemed more hesitant to say that the Pope prayed in a mosque alongside Muslims.


As Allen suggests, the Pope seemed to settle confusion at a weekly Wednesday General Audience. Benedict said:


In the area of interreligious dialogue, divine Providence granted me, almost at the end of my Journey, an unscheduled Visit which proved rather important: my Visit to Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque. Pausing for a few minutes of recollection in that place of prayer, I addressed the one Lord of Heaven and earth, the Merciful Father of all humanity. May all believers recognize that they are his creatures and witness to true brotherhood!


Tirimanna notes that the Pope claims to have been moved by “divine Providence.” Then, Benedict “addressed the one Lord,” obviously in prayer, conscious that he was in a “place of prayer,” and was moved to pray using language that would be recognizable by Muslims – that is, he prayed alongside the Grand Mufti and other Muslims. Tirimanna notes that after this papal statement, nobody has denied that the Pope prayed in the Blue Mosque.


Obviously, the Pope’s private, personal prayer was striking. As Cardinal Roger Etchegaray said, “It is a gesture that has the same force as that of John Paul II at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem when he slipped into a slot of the wall a small note with a prayer.” Etchegaray noted, “Neither of these acts was premeditated.”


The question, though, is why it was so hard to admit that the Pope had prayed. Perhaps, especially given even more recent controversy, we must consider whether one of the most difficult Christian teachings to receive is the very old teaching of the Schoolmen: Deus virtutem suam non alligavit sacramentis. “God has not tied his power to vivify and sanctify to the sacraments.”

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Pope Benedict in the Blue Mosque

  1. Neil,

    I too think it could have been, should have been, one of the big events of Benedict’s prontificate. The Church is constant in its reminder for Christians and Muslims to work together, to get beyond the polemics of the past. What Benedict did there was one such moment; but too many of those who otherwise act like Benedict’s cheerleaders were otherwise focused on “Jihad Watch” to notice.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Henry,

    Thank you for writing. I should also say that I enjoy reading your posts at Vox Nova.

    I agree with you. But I think that I would add something. I think that the prayer in the Blue Mosque was quickly forgotten for a somewhat theological, not just a political reason. Put a bit crudely, some of those concerned with Catholic “identity,” because of their fascination with the continuity and stability and cultural influence of the Church, and their worry about accommodation, tend to delight in boundaries. Thus, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue seem uninteresting, if not counterproductive, because they are transgressive.

    Needless to say, I am pessimistic, especially of late.


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