BY JOHN LAUGHLAND
On a pale day in February 1942, the telephone rang on Pope Pius Xll's desk in Rome. When the Holy Father lifted the receiver, he was given the miraculous news for which he had hardly dared
hope. The secret excavations being ' carried out under the high altar of St Peter's had reached their goal. They had discovered the Roman necropolis beneath and the tomb of the chief apostle himself. When Christ said: "You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church", few can have realised that he meant the words very literally indeed.
Since the World War was raging when Pius ordered the archeological dig, his decision might have seemed eccentric. In fact, his reaction to the world crisis was, from a Christian point of view, very sensible. Faced with the collapse of all civilised norms, and with the struggle between two satanic regimes, Nazism and Communism, for control of the planet, Pius decided literally to delve deep into the origins of the Christian faith, sure that he would find there the safest foundations on which to base the continued existence of the Church of Christ.
Pope Benedict is doing the same thing. His visit to Turkey should be understood in the light of his desire to go back to the sources of the Christian faith, in order to draw there the fresh waters which continue to spring from it. Just as Joseph Ratzinger as Pope chose the name of the great saint who, at the dawn of Christianity, founded that monastic tradition which was of such elemental importance for the growth of the Church, and who lived 500 years before the Church split between East and West, so Pope Benedict has chosen to make two foreign trips which symbolise, more than anything else, a return to roots.
The first was to his own birthplace, Bavaria, where he gave a remarkable speech on the importance of the Ancient Greek inheritance for Christianity today. Now, he is visiting the city which, like Rome, embodies the direct historical continuity of the Christian faith from ancient times to our own. In fact, it is not a visit "to Turkey" at all. Byzantium, now Istanbul, was the greatest city in Christendom, founded as Constantinople or "New Rome" by the first Christian emperor, Constantine. It is where the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox (Greek) Church still resides today. In the dark ages, when Rome itself was in decline, the Greek Byzantine emperors considered themselves "Roman" too, upholders of the same universal claims of the empire and its truth as those upheld by the Pope in Rome.
For 1,000 years, the Eastern Patriarchate was housed in the most splendid church in the world, the Basilica of St Sophia, whose domes command the Bosphorus to this day. First dedicated in 537, St Sophia was in fact built by the Emperor Justinian on the site of two other churches, the first of which was dedicated in 360, within decades of Constantine's own conversion. Unfortunately, this magnificent building, which the contemporary historian Procopius said was so magnificent that it had been "fashioned not by any human power or skill but by the influence of God", is now disfigured by minarets, the church having of course been occupied as a mosque since the Ottoman seizure of Constantinople in 1453.
It is this, the question of Islam. which is likely to dominate and obscure the papal visit, just as it obscured the central message of the Regensburg speech. In it, the Pope specifically referred to Ancient Greece to argue that the Christian faith is compatible, at its deepest level, with the tenets of reason and rationality. He said that it was precisely the genius of Ancient Greece to have argued that the most transcendental values penetrate the very fabric of concrete existence. Human reason is consequently able, by examining the world, to deduce and to comprehend (if only partially) the infinity of God. Religion is not a matter of private belief, still less of superstition. Pope Benedict quoted Socrates to argue that Christians need to be reassured that truth exists and that it can be known: yet this, the single most important lesson to be gleaned from the philosophers of Ancient Greece, is precisely what is contested by the nihilism of the modern world.
The Pope concluded from this that Hellenism was itself a universal culture, and that it should not be abandoned by the Church today, especially not in the pursuit of some dubious programme of cultural relativism. Of course, Hellenism, transfigured by Christianity, lived on, precisely, in Byzantium. This is why, when the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew, the Latin and Greek patriarchs, stand side by side, they will symbolise not only the living continuity today of the traditions of the ancient world, and the truths revealed therein, but also the hope for reunification, one day, of Christendom under one universal and apostolic Church.
John Laughland is a British journalist, academic and author