For the traveling Pontiff, it was not a laid-back Turkish holiday. The citizens of the proud, predominantly Muslim nation had no love of Popes. To the East, the Iranian government was galvanizing anti-Western feeling. The news reported that an escaped killer was on the loose, threatening to assassinate the Pontiff when he arrived. Yet the Holy Father was undaunted. "Love is stronger than danger," he said. "I am in the hands of God." He fared forward--to Ankara, to Istanbul--and preached the commonality of the world's great faiths. He enjoined both Christians and Muslims to "seek ties of friendship with other believers who invoke the name of a single God." He did not leave covered with garlands, but he set a groundwork for what would be years of rapprochement between the Holy See and Islam. He was a uniter, not a divider.
That was 1979 and Pope John Paul II. But when Benedict XVI travels to Turkey next week on his first visit to a Muslim country since becoming Pope last year, he is unlikely to cloak himself in a downy banner of brotherhood, the way his predecessor did 27 years ago. Instead, Benedict, 79, will arrive carrying a different reputation: that of a hard-knuckle intellect with a taste for blunt talk and interreligious confrontation. Just 19 months into his tenure, the Pope has become as much a moral lightning rod as a theologian; suddenly, when he speaks, the whole world listens. And so what takes place over four days in three Turkish cities has the potential to define his papacy--and a good deal more.
Few people saw this coming. Nobody truly expected Benedict to be a mere caretaker Pope--his sometimes ferocious 24-year tenure as the Vatican's theological enforcer and John Paul's right hand suggested anything but passivity. But this same familiarity argued against surprises. The new Pontiff was expected to sustain John Paul's conservative line on morality and church discipline and focus most of his energies on trimming the Vatican bureaucracy and battling Western culture's "moral relativism." Although acknowledged as a brilliant conservative theologian, Benedict lacked the open-armed charisma of his predecessor. Moreover, what had initially propelled John Paul to the center of the world stage was his challenge to communism and its subsequent fall, a huge geopolitical event that the Pope helped precipitate with two exhilarating visits to his beloved Polish homeland. By contrast, what could Benedict do? Liberate Bavaria?