Pope Benedict was feted by leaders of other religions as a kind and gentle person. His intellect guided the Catholic Church’s orthodoxy and belief during his 25 years as the head of the Vatican congregation that steers the faith of its worldwide churches. Here, we look to the interfaith legacy of Pope Benedict, who was – indirectly – a cause of World Interfaith Harmony Week coming into being.
Relations with Muslims
When Pope Benedict visited Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in 2006, he took off his shoes and stood in silent meditation with his arms folded in the same manner as the imam praying next to him. This was read by many Muslims as a sign of deep respect and as a gesture that ran directly counter to a speech he had made two months earlier at the University of Regensburg, Germany.
In the Regensburg speech, the pope had quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor, who said Muhammad had brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the faith by the sword.” The pope afterward explained that he was not endorsing the emperor’s words, and he expressed regret that some Muslims were hurt by the remarks.
Pope Benedict maintained that the comment he had quoted did not reflect his own views. His statement has been included as a footnote in the official text of the lecture available at Vatican websiteref
In the Muslim world, this quotation has unfortunately been taken as an expression of my personal position, thus arousing understandable indignation. I hope that the reader of my text can see immediately that this sentence does not express my personal view of the Qur’an, for which I have the respect due to the holy book of a great religion. In quoting the text of the Emperor Manuel II, I intended solely to draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason. On this point I am in agreement with Manuel II, but without endorsing his polemic.
Throughout the world, however, many people thought the Pope’s use of the quote insensitive. A very strong sense of injustice was expressed by many Muslims in response to the speech. One month later, 38 Islamic scholars, representing all branches of Islam, replied to Pope Benedict in “An Open Letter to the Pope”, dated 13 October 2006. One year later, 138 Islamic personalities co-signed an open letter entitled “A Common Word Between Us and You,” . The letter aimed to promote interfaith dialogue.
In reaction, 138 Muslim scholars from around the world launched an initiative called writing to Pope Benedict and other Christian leaders asking for a serious dialogue about values Christians and Muslims hold in common: the obligation to love God and to love one another. Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan is named as the author of the website A Common Word Between You and Us. On October 20, 2010, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, Special Advisor and Personal Envoy to the King Abdullah II and author of the resolution, presented the proposal for a World Interfaith Harmony Week before the UN General Assembly in New York where it was adopted unanimously.
The A Common Word Initiative and the World Interfaith Harmony Week stem from the idea that humanity is bound together by the two shared commandments of ‘Love of God and Love of the Neighbour’ or ‘Love of the Good and Love of the Neighbour’.
In the 2010 book, “Light of the World,” Pope Benedict said Catholics and Muslims have two basic things in common: “We both defend major religious values — faith in God and obedience to God — and we both need to situate ourselves correctly in modernity.”
Day of Prayer for World Peace at Assisi 2011
When some 300 religious leaders joined him in Assisi, Italy, in October 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of St. John Paul II’s prayer for peace meeting, Pope Benedict said that as more and more people become convinced religion is a major source of tension in the world, religious believers have to be honest about their communities’ past and present.
“As a Christian I want to say at this point: Yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith. We acknowledge it with great shame. But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature,” he told the religious leaders.
At the same time, he insisted that history also has shown the danger of denying God’s existence, because “when man no longer recognises any criterion or any judge above himself,” he feels free to unleash his fury to obtain what he wants.
On 22 December 2011, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Roman Curia about the significance of the Assisi event.
It would take too long now to go into detail concerning the encounter in Assisi, as the significance of the event would warrant. Let us simply thank God, that as representatives of the world’s religions and as representatives of thinking in search of truth, we were able to meet that day in a climate of friendship and mutual respect, in love for the truth and in shared responsibility for peace. So let us hope that, from this encounter, a new willingness to serve peace, reconciliation and justice has emerged.
On 9 January, in an address to the Diplomatic Corps, Benedict told, inter-alia,
In the past year religiously motivated terrorism has also reaped numerous victims, especially in Asia and in Africa; for this reason, as I stated in Assisi, religious leaders need to repeat firmly and forcefully that “this is not the true nature of religion. It is the antithesis of religion and contributes to its destruction”. Religion cannot be employed as a pretext for setting aside the rules of justice and of law for the sake of the intended “good”.
Pope Benedict XVI and Catholic-Jewish Relations
by Rabbi David Rosen
The ceremony of Pope Benedict XVI’s installation in Rome in 2005 coincided with the Jewish festival of Passover, making it difficult for many religious Jewish leaders (and impossible for some) to accept the invitations they had received to be present. Ironically the situation was somewhat similar with the Pope’s visit to the U.S. in 2008 coinciding with the eve of Passover.
However, the very fact that invitations to the Pope’s coronation were extended to rabbis was itself a precedent and a powerful indication of Pope Benedict XVI’s special commitment to the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism.
Little more than a month later he received a delegation of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. This roof body, embracing the principle Jewish advocacy organizations as well as the major streams of contemporary Judaism, is the official partner of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jewry. Notably he received this Jewish delegation almost immediately into his pontificate, before he had even received delegations from representative bodies of other branches of Christianity, let alone other religions.
In his words at this meeting he declared,
“In the years following the (Second Vatican Ecumenical) Council, my predecessors Pope Paul VI and in a special way, Pope John Paul II, took significant steps towards improving relations with the Jewish people. It is my intention to continue on this path.”
Moreover, the first place of divine worship of another religious community visited by Pope Benedict XVI was the synagogue in Cologne which he visited in August 2005 during his journey to Germany for the World Youth Day. On that occasion he referred to the aforementioned meeting, stating that: “Today I wish to reaffirm that I intend to continue with great vigor on the path towards improved relations and friendship.
In October 2005 Pope Benedict XVI made Rabbi David Rosen a Papal Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great – the first Israeli and the only Orthodox rabbi to have received such distinction.
An Ecumenical Legacy
Pope Benedict’s invitation in 2012 to Dr Rowan Williams to become the first archbishop of Canterbury to address a synod of bishops in Rome said something of the pontiff’s appreciation for the Anglican leader.
It was with the Orthodox churches of the East to which most hopes for greater unity were directed. In 1976, Ratzinger had suggested that from a theological perspective, the union of the churches of East and West was fundamentally possible, although the spiritual preparation had not advanced sufficiently.
Within a short time of Benedict becoming pope, long-standing issues that had prevented meetings of the Catholic-Orthodox international dialogue commission were swept aside.
In November 2006, Pope Benedict visited the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, for the feast day of St Andrew, considered to be the founder of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the former name for present-day Istanbul.
By 2007, the Catholic-Orthodox commission had drawn up the Ravenna document on conciliarity and primacy, seen as a first step towards overcoming the thousand-year disagreement on papal primacy, although the early momentum was lost in the years that followed.
Benedict and Youth
In 2021, Pope Benedict visited Lebanon. He reached out to the Middle East through Lebanon, a democratic and pluralistic exception in a region ruled by autocracy. First and foremost, we like to think that he came to help the Lebanese of all confessions, starting with Christians, to appreciate at its true value the synthesis of Islamic-Christian civilisation, the “living together” as his predecessor had called it, offering it as a model for both East and West.
In doing so, he rejuvenated the “religious roots” of the Maronite community, who represent the majority of Lebanon’s Christians, which John Paul II described as “the source of their national identity.” This aggiornamento became essential to grasp a history that had become more complex since the creation of “Greater Lebanon” (1920) and the decolonisation that followed the Second World War.
Addressing the thousands of young people who came to listen to him in the large venue set up at the entrance to the Maronite patriarchal seat in Bkerké, Benedict XVI told them again that it was an “honour” for them to live on a land where Christ walked.
On that occasion, he went on to say: “I should like now to greet the young Muslims who are with us this evening. I thank you for your presence, which is so important. Together with the young Christians, you are the future of this fine country and of the Middle East in general. Seek to build it up together! And when you are older, continue to live in unity and harmony with Christians. For the beauty of Lebanon is found in this fine symbiosis. It is vital that the Middle East in general, looking at you, should understand that Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society.”
He did not forget the young Arabs who had come to him. “I understand, too, that present among us there are some young people from Syria. I want to say how much I admire your courage. Tell your families and friends back home that the Pope has not forgotten you.” He spoke to them a year before their country, which he mentioned, would slide into violence in 2013, like an episode of the Arab Spring sage.
Benedict and Music
Benedict was known to be deeply interested in classical music, and was an accomplished pianist. His favourite composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of whose music he said: “His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.” Benedict also stated that Mozart’s music affected him greatly as a young man and “deeply penetrated his soul”. Benedict’s favourite works of music were Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet.
Benedict was also known to be fond of cats. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was known (according to former neighbours) to look after stray cats in his neighbourhood. A book called Joseph and Chico: A Cat Recounts the Life of Pope Benedict XVI was published in 2007 which told the story of the Pope’s life from the feline Chico’s perspective. This story was inspired by an orange tabby Pentling cat, which belonged to the family next door.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, he tried to retire three times. It was known at the third attempt to retire, that he had suffered several mini-strokes and it was music that aided his recovery. At age 75, he was supposed to submit a letter of resignation. Pope John Paul II refused the letter and told (then) Cardinal Ratzinger, “I want you with me to the end”.
Image Credits: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia