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Vatican Notebook Edward Pentin
BOTH small and grand gestures figured highly during Pope Francis’s visit to Turkey, as has become a trend in this pontificate.
One of the most striking was Francis’s request for the blessing of Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. The Pope proceeded to bow to a surprised Patriarch, who kissed his head.
The Pope has done the same with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, but this is the first time the gesture has been enacted in public.
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said “this familiar way” of the Patriarch kissing the Pope’s head was a first, and reflected the depth of friendship between the two leaders that is enabling them to push “with incredible strength toward union”. The gesture was widely praised, though critics saw it as unbefitting of the Vicar of Christ, who needs to uphold papal primacy.
Another major gesture was when Francis prayed with the grand mufti in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, going further than Benedict XVI’s moment of “contemplation” in 2006. Francis told reporters on the plane back that he “prayed for Turkey, for peace, for the mufti, for everyone, for myself because I need it”.
Although praised, the gesture also drew flack, with some arguing it gave moral legitimacy to Islam, conveying that it is “a religion of peace” – a sentiment many disagree with. Critics argue that both gestures promoted an aura of relativism.
A poignant moment without controversy was when the Pope met about 100 Iraqi and Syrian child refugees, telling them he wanted to share in their suffering and give them hope. Just before departing Turkey, he broke from his schedule to visit the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople in hospital.
The Pope’s gestures can be a mixed blessing: often they are controversial, yet capable of engaging a public that may otherwise ignore him.
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