Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Pope Sails to Byzantium

"That is no country for old men."
(Image from Wikipedia)

John Berwick, in "Sailing to Byzantium" (International Herald Tribune, September 29, 2006) has suggested yet another reason that the Pope quoted the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus:

Manuel II Paleologus (1350-1425) was one of the last Christian rulers of Byzantium. He was the father of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, who is revered by Greek Orthodox Christians as a saint. During Manuel II's reign, the Turks had conquered most of the Byzantine provinces, devastated and pillaged Greek cities, and enslaved thousands of Christian women and children. In 1394, the sultan laid siege to Constantinople, inflicting hunger and suffering on the Christian residents of the city for eight years. Naturally, the emperor had a rather jaundiced view of Islam. So why did the pope quote Manuel II as an authority on jihad?


Benedict has an ambitious agenda. He wants to reclaim Europe for Christianity. That project may seem unrealistic, but a first step would be to reunite divided Christians. In the pope's view, theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism are so great that little progress can be expected on that front. But Eastern Orthodoxy, the second largest Christian communion in the world after the Roman Catholic Church, is a different matter.

There are no major theological differences separating the two communions. Some form of reunion is not only feasible; from Benedict's point of view, it is highly desirable.


The pope is 79 and in poor health. He knows that he won't live to see his dream of a re-evangelized Europe come true. But the first step in that agenda -- unity with the Eastern Orthodox communion -- appears within his grasp. His reference to the beleaguered Byzantine emperor Manuel II will have been understood by the world's 240 million Eastern Orthodox Christians as a dramatic gesture of solidarity.

I believe it was a calculated risk. In November the pope will meet Patriarch Bartholomew I, and no doubt he will receive a warm welcome.

This is certainly a different perspective on the issue, and one that I hadn't considered. Berwick's argument has a certain plausibility to it since it would clarify why the Pope chose precisely this 'brusque' quote by the Byzantine emperor.

But if this should turn out to have been the Pope's intention, then he happened to choose a statement from the emperor that could backfire by reminding Orthodox Christians of the Latin West's earlier attacks on Byzantium and its final abandonment of Greek Orthodoxy in its moment of direst danger. Recall the words from Marie-Hélène Congourdeau:
At the time of Manuel, when Byzantines objected to the idea of a holy war, they have as a line of sight, in the same time, Muslim Jihad and western crusade ... [especially] the trauma of 4th Crusade and all the expeditions when they saw Christian soldiers with a cross ... handling a sword ... [in] the name of Christ.
The Orthodox Church partly blames the Western Church for its fall, and with some justification, so if Pope Benedict XVI's intention is to draw the Orthodox closer to union with the Catholic Church, then those dark clouds looming on the horizen might roll in to rain on his parade.

Unstable weather ahead for this Byzantine voyage...

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At 12:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This must be the 6th or 7th at least semi-plausible interpretation of what the pope really, actually meant. A great thinker and speechwriter he may be, and able to say three or four things simultaneously - but six or seven? No way! Somebody must have got it wrong. I daresay this latest interpretation about Eastern Orthodoxy is one of the wrong ones.

A collegue of mine remarked today that he thought it significant that the second and third crusade (under Frederick Barbarossa and some Kaiser I forgot, respectively) started in Regensburg... We can all pick our favourite signs and wonders.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, there seems to be a plethora of interpretations, some more plausible than others.

I'm not quite satisfied by any of them yet ... not even by my own brilliant suggestion.

Jeffery Hodges

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