Pictures speaking countless words…. remember the days when Pope John Paul II was globetrotting? In his more vigorous days, the first photos of his travel to a new country would show him kneeling to kiss the ground of the land he was visiting. Always, somewhere in the background, were smiling public officials flanked by children gaily clad in traditional garb singing “Sto Lat” (Polish for “May you live 100 Years”). He had a gift for charming even the most skeptical audience.
When I looked at today’s Washington Post front page, I saw a very different photograph of a Pope visiting another nation. Soldiers in fatigues with rifles ready took the place of those gaily clad children as Pope Benedict XVI, standing out in his white double-breasted coat, walked past a line of helmeted soldiers on his visit this week to Turkey. Nobody sang “Sto Lat.” The crowds in Turkey appear to be largely protesters, at least from news photos; the Pope is surrounded by grim-looking men.
Popular media, spoiled by the charismatic JPII, have had a hard time warming to the more-remote, cerebral Benedict. His blunder into the treacherous quagmire of Christian-Muslim relations provided fodder for those looking to magnify the unfortunate comparisons with his more politically astute predecessor.
But I think the press are missing the real story in Pope Benedict’s lonely journey to Ankara this week. He could have stayed home at the Vatican. Thousands of Turkish Muslims made it clear that he was not welcome in their homeland. People are worried for his safety. He went anyway, a man on a mission to open a dialogue that faltered when he insulted Muslims last year during an ill-advised speech that quoted a long-dead emperor on the subject of Islam.
Some may think his trip foolhardy under these circumstances, but I think it’s a courageous act of reconciliation. Whether he can succeed is another question, but from all that I have read it seems that the Pope is genuinely trying to open dialogue with Muslims, as well as Orthodox Christians who have also been at odds with the Roman Church for a millennium.
Acts of forgiveness, hope and charity are central to the Catholic faith, and most other faith traditions as well. If the leaders of major faiths cannot credibly perform these acts for the world to see, who can, who will?