Pope Benedict XVI's controversial trip to Turkey last November, as the supposed 263rd Successor of St Peter, is now largely forgotten. At least he got out alive, following heavier security than for president Bush's visit in 2004. According to David Willey, the BBC's Rome correspondent, the trip was pregnant with "defining moments". The Vatican seemed on a roll from the first moments with its victory in the stand off with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who intended to snub Benedict by not receiving him at Ankara. But Erdogan's nerve ultimately failed him. The Vatican secured his climb down at the very last minute and he went to meet the Pope.
Benedict then established his platform as a visitor to a modern secular republic by going directly to the Ataturk Mausoleum graphically making the point that popes and imams are theoretically on equal terms in Turkey. Following Erdogan's capitulation, meetings with lesser Turkish officials followed easily.
His All Holiness
The following day he joined, as planned, the Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew I, the 270th successor of St Andrew. They met for a doxology in St George's Cathedral Istanbul.
Quite unplanned was Bartholomew's last minute decision to go to the airport to greet the pope. Followers of this column will know that Benedict is dedicated to reuniting with the Orthodox Church whose foremost ancient Patriachate is Constantinople (`New Rome') now known as Istanbul. When Constantinople falls under papal thraldom the other minor Eastern Orthodox churches will tend to follow suit leaving Rome's bitter enemy the Russian Orthodox Church in a much more vulnerable position.
Why did Bartholomew lose his nerve and meet the Pope? The answer seems to be the Halki Orthodox seminary. Halki is one of the Prince's islands in the Sea of Marmara and its fabulous hilltop Orthodox seminary was founded around 860 as a monastery and converted into a prestigious seminary in 1844. The Turkish government shut it in 1971 because the orthodox want no state control, for if they won state recognition the Muslims would want the same. The desks, chairs, library , church and icons are kept spotless awaiting an independent reopening. Bill Clinton lobbied for this and failed in 1998, as have the EU thus far in their bargaining over Turkish entry. The hope was Benedict might do better and persuade the Turkish Government to reopen it.
Msgr Robert Stern
There continued, on the following day, the "beautiful custom" of recent times of the Orthodox patriarch attending the feast of St Peter and St Paul in St Peters Rome on 29th July with the pope reciprocating on the Feast of St Andrew on 30th November.
Press hacks were by now guardedly muttering about the trip going better than expected. So much so in fact that Msgr. Robert L Stern, Secretary General of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), Rome's man in near East, was quite bullish when invited to voice over the feat for an American TV channel. CNEWA was established in 1926 by Pius IX basically to oversee all the small Roman Catholic churches in the near east and gather intelligence concerning the Syrian Coptic, Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Greek Melkite, Maromte and Syriac so called Uniate churches who follow the Roman rite and are in communion with Rome. Since most of these areas also have Eastern Orthodox congregations, his duties included keeping Rome informed about these also.
Stern's rhetoric, when pushed, is illuminating:
Interviewer: "Who is the Ecumenical Patriarch?"
Stern: "The Ecumenical Patriarch is the Senior Orthodox Patriarch in the world He is first among equals. And yet in the Universal Church that title would belong to the pope of course... even from the Orthodox point of view. (Stern suddenly is not smiling but stern indeed as if he had himself questioned the unquestionable. He raises his hand with fingers spread and palm outwards as if resisting an invisible force challenging his "even" and tries again) Second (emphatic) to the pope, he [Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriach) is first among equals of the Oriental Patriarchs".
More typical of grass roots opinion was the concerted orthodox protest in Athens in 2001 when John Paul II visited Greece. "Protesters held aloft icons or the Byzantine flag with its two headed eagle crest. Some waved black flags as they chanted against the pope. Banners in Greek and Italian said: Get the antiChrist pope out of Orthodox Greece"
The Virgin Mary's house
So Rome must nibble away at the grass roots of both Orthodoxy and Islam.
To that end Benedict's mass at The Virgin Mary's house near Ephesus was possibly more important than his visits to Hagia Sophia or even the last minute Vatican coup of being allowed into the important Blue Mosque just across the road from Hagia Sophia. Here he removed his shoes and mouthed prayer for several minutes facing Mecca alongside the Mufti of Istanbul and Imam of the Blue Mosque.
The Meryemana or Mary House shrine near ancient Ephesus was seen in a vision by German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich who reputably existed for 12 years only on the host and water and who had neer visited the area.
The legend is based on Christ's entrusting of Mary to John and the strong tradition of John reaching old age at Ephesus. Writer Clemens Brentano popularised Emmerich's visions in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ and subsequently in 1891 a monk from Izmir located the building which became an official Romanist shrine in 1896. The shrine was a security nightmare, up a winding road amongst deep woods, and only 300 highly vetted Romanists were invited.
Moslems visit in droves
However the significance of the Marian shrine at Ephesus is far reaching. Moslems visit the Meryemana in droves. At the entrance, stalls selling effigies of the Virgin Mary and the locally acceptable Diana of Ephesus (Acts Chapter 19) attract the attention of visiting Muslims. The press were obviously impressed by Muslims eyeing these goods and even some Muslim women inspecting them. Several photographs appeared from the same spot that the present writer photographed them with equal interest 10 years ago. So this is no passing fad.
The Meryemana is a shrine to the Romish Virgin Mary through and through. Her effigy is on the hill driving up, she is outside, she is on the high altar and, for the Orthodox, there are familiar icons of Mary. Suras from the Quran describing Mary are clearly displayed within the house.
Maryam attracts the Moslems
There is no doubt that Marian shrines are an important part of Rome's armoury in her attempts to draw in not only Orthodoxy but also Islam.
A trend the author has noticed in Italy, where Marian sanctuaries abound (and this may well be true in Spain and other Counter Reformation countries) is to represent these shrines as churches. The road signs show a cross seeming to indicate a church.
One Saturday morning we visited six Marian sanctuaries and were still home in time for lunch. Most were signposted as though they were churches. The Sanctuario di Mongiovino was preparing for a wedding ceremony just like a church.
However each one of these sanctuaries is in its origin entirely Marian. Each one will have grown up on the site of a Marian miracle hundreds of years ago. The correct title of Mongiovino is the Sanctuario di Madonna di Mongiovino and this is how it will have been known for five centuries until very recent times. The Madonna di Mogiovino is over both portals and on the high altar. Often as in this case the original Marian miracle is based on a healing spring. The sanctuary was built solely to perpetuate the Madonna di Mongiovino's memory and set forth her image. It contains frescoes and relics of her miracles and perpetuates her fame. Indeed it was none other than Leo X, Luther's opponent at the Reformation, who first authenticated the Marian miracle here.
Although it is now possible in a motor car to visit so many sanctuaries in a morning, each of these would originally have serviced one tiny village. The Madonna of the local miracle would bear no relation to either the Virgin Mary of the Bible or indeed to the miracle working virgin of the next village.
Originally these sanctuaries would have been, unlike a church, right out in a deserted place away from the village, sometimes up a perilous track so there was an element of merit gained through the privation of pilgrimage. A visit was something special and the virgin's help would be sought for a particular problem. Most people in that village would never go elsewhere in a lifetime. And since these little villages did not have a church their version of Mary became the centre point of their faith and hope.
This is well illustrated by the seventeenth century Sanctuary of the Madonna della Carraia visited that morning. The miracle virgin's sanctuary is hidden in the countryside well away from what was once the tiny isolated village of Panicorola. Here her complete role as Mary Redeemer is writ clear in the iron crucifix. The move to make these sanctuaries appear as Churches has involved late and superficial change. Surely in the future a determined interfaith policy on the part of Rome could easily remove all traces of Christ from these sanctuaries, and let them revert back as places of respect for Mary as distinct from churches perhaps making them as acceptable as the Maryemana to Muslims?
The Quran and Mary
The Quran seems to suggest the immaculate conception of Mary as well as the Virgin birth. Yusuf Ali Translation "And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our spirit, and We made her and her son a sign for all peoples.
Yusuf Ali also suggests she was the best woman ever to live, "Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! God hath chosen thee and purified thee chosen thee above the women of all nations".
But others suggest this meant amongst women of her lifetime alone.
Hilai Khan Translation "And (remember) when the angels said: O Maryam (Mary)! Verily, Allah has chosen you, purified you (from polytheism and disbelief), and chosen you above the women of the Alamin (mankind and jinns) (of her lifetime)".