Pope Benedict Prays for Unity

"He that hath an ear, let him hear," wrote St. John the Divine to the fledging Church of Ephesus in the Book of Revelation. Pope Benedict XVI, in Ephesus, Turkey, on Wednesday to visit the House of the Virgin Mary, is no doubt hoping that the modern-day residents of Asia Minor's holy places will also hear his message.

On Tuesday, the pontiff called for a "sincere dialogue between faiths" and voiced support for Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union. Wednesday, at an open-air mass outside the house where the Virgin is reputed to have passed her last years, Benedict prayed for understanding between faiths--the theme  has come to dominate his pontificate. But controversy was just below the surface: the pope's sermon also included a prayer for the soul of a Roman Catholic priest, John Andrea Santoro, shot dead in February by an unknown assailant in the Turkish city of Trabzon in the wake of Benedict's remarks on Islam last October. With this prayer, he reminded his audience of the specter of anti-Christian violence by Turks.

The pope's visit to Mary's shrine had a particular resonance given the devotion of Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, to a conservative theology that emphasizes the role of the Virgin in salvation. Wednesday's mass, which Benedict celebrated in front of 500 personally invited Catholics, was a masterpiece of liturgical diplomacy compiled by Archbishop Piero Marini, master of papal liturgical celebrations using Turkish, Italian, French, English and German. As with every speech the pope has made in Turkey, there was a strong emphasis on Christian-Muslim unity. "I want to reiterate the solidarity between the cultures--this is our duty," the pontiff told worshippers.

Ephesus, once the greatest metropolis of Asia Minor, is a resonant Biblical site. St. Paul visited the city on his first and third missionary journeys, and his preaching there was so effective that he claims that "all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the Word of The Lord." (Acts 19:10). The apostle John, according to one tradition, spent many years in Ephesus while caring for Christ's mother, Mary. Local tradition holds that both Mary and John are buried near the city, and St. John the Divine, author of the book of Revelation, cites Ephesus as one of the seven churches that would witness the coming of the Antichrist.

But while the pope's visit may be an important spiritual journey for the staunchly Marian Benedict, it has made some local Christians uncomfortable. Ever since the Turkish War of Independence, which lasted from 1919 to 1923, when Greek troops occupied what is now Western Turkey in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire's defeat in World War I, relations between Muslim Turks and Orthodox Greeks have been tense in the extreme. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks were forced from their homes in a forcible exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1924, leaving ghost towns and empty churches all up Turkey's Aegean coast. The 5,000-odd Greeks who remain--mostly concentrated in the old port city of Izmir (Smyrna in Greek) and Istanbul--prefer to keep as low a profile as possible. The pope's visit has concentrated attention on their fragile coexistence--not all of it welcome.

"We will be staying at home with our families during the pope's visit," one of Izmir's few Catholics, one of a tiny community with its roots in Italian Levantine traders, told NEWSWEEK on Monday. He asked that his name not be used because "we don't like to cause any problems with our neighbors."

On Wednesday evening, Benedict celebrated the first of several joint masses with Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople, the senior bishop of Eastern Orthodoxy and spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians. Originally the papal visit had been planned strictly as an ecumenical visit from the pontiff to his brother bishop, part of a rapprochement between the Eastern and Western churches, which Benedict has often spoken of trying to promote. But instead of allowing a purely ecclesiastical visit, the Turkish government insisted that Benedict, as the head of the Vatican State, go through the full rigmarole of a state reception in Ankara, including the laying of a wreath at the tomb of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic.

But Wednesday's mass, and another Thursday celebrating the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, will be the heart of Benedict's visit--as well as the pope's first visit to a mosque as pope, which promises to draw more protesters. The pope has been trying at every turn to prove that he is not a hater of Muslims. It remains to he seen whether his audience has ears to hear.