VATICAN CITY — A day after reaching out to other Christians and to Jews in his installation Mass, Pope Benedict XVI met Monday with members of the Muslim community, assuring them the church wanted to continue building “bridges of friendship” that he said could foster peace in the world.
Benedict made the comments while meeting with religious leaders who attended Sunday’s installation ceremony, saying he was particularly grateful that members of the Muslim community were present.
“I express my appreciation for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, both at the local and international level,” he said.
He noted that the world is marked by conflicts but longs for peace.
“Yet peace is also a duty to which all peoples must be committed, especially those who profess to belong to religious traditions,” he said. “Our efforts to come together and foster dialogue are a valuable contribution to building peace on solid foundations.
“It is therefore imperative to engage in authentic and sincere dialogue, built on respect for the dignity of every human person, created as we Christians firmly believe, in the image and likeness of God,” he said.
Later, Benedict kiddingly told an audience of German pilgrims that at one point during the conclave he viewed the idea of being elected pope as a “guillotine,” and he prayed to God to be spared selection.
“As the trend in the ballots slowly made me realize that — in a manner of speaking, the guillotine would fall on me — I started to feel quite dizzy,” a smiling Benedict said, clearly joking. “I thought that I had done my life’s work and could now hope to live out my days in peace. I told the Lord with deep conviction, ’Don’t do this to me.”’
Speaking in his native German, Benedict, 78, told the audience that a cardinal slipped him a note of paper reminding him what he had preached about Christ calling Peter to follow him even if he did not want to go.
“Evidently, this time he didn’t listen to me,” the pontiff said.
Benedict was interrupted several times by applause and cheering, and he seemed to enjoy the welcome from his countrymen, smiling and chuckling. He apologized for being late, saying the meeting with the religious leaders had been “heartfelt” and had gone late.
“The Germans are used to punctuality,” he joked. “I’m already very Italian.”
The Vatican did not say which Muslim leaders attended the meeting, which was closed to the press.
But it did release a list of those who attended Sunday’s Mass, including Saeed Taghavi, head of the office of religious minorities in Iran’s culture ministry, and the head of Rome’s central mosque.
Two dozen Buddhist representatives also were on the list, which included the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams; Metropolitan Chrisostomos, a top envoy for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Christian Orthodox Church; and a senior representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kirill.
Most Jewish leaders could not attend the Mass because it coincided with Passover.
“I assure you that the church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole,” Benedict said.
Overcoming thes schism
The message was significant because Benedict had left out any specific mention of Muslims in his inaugural homily, although he had directed a greeting to “believers and nonbelievers alike.”
In the homily, he specifically mentioned Jews, calling them his “brothers and sisters” who were joined with Catholics in a “shared spiritual heritage.” He also called several times for full communion of Christians.
Benedict repeated that message Monday, telling ecumenical leaders that he fully supported the need to work toward uniting Christians divided by schism and saying the ecumenical presence at his installation was a good sign.
“Your presence, dear brothers in Christ, beyond that which divides us and casts a shadow over our full and visible communion, is a sign of sharing and support for the bishop of Rome, which can count on you for following the path in the hope and for the belief toward he who is the head, the Christ,” he said.
In his homily Sunday, Benedict — who has a reputation as a hard-liner for leading Vatican crackdowns on dissidents — said he wanted to shape his papacy by being a “listener” and not set off by imposing his own ideas.
“My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole church, to the word and the will of the Lord,” Benedict said in his inauguration homily.
The pope did not elaborate, but the speech suggested his papacy could study some pressing issues, such as greater social activism and ways to reverse the decline of church attendance and the dwindling number of priests in the West. In his previous role as guardian of church teaching, he had staunchly opposed calls for fundamental changes such as ending bans on contraception or for allowing women to become priests.
Changing people's minds
“I was quite prejudiced against him at first,” said Maria Theising-Otte, a teacher from a Catholic grammar school in Handrup, Lower Saxony, who was among the German pilgrims lining up for their audience with the pope.
“But now that I’ve seen him, read about him, I’ve changed my mind. I think he came across quite human, very modest and decent,” during his installation Mass on Sunday, she said.
She was with 1,800 students from the Gymnasium Leonium Handrup who traveled to Rome — a trip that was originally planned for the canonization Sunday for the founder of their school, Leo Dehon, but postponed after Pope John Paul II died April 2.
“You never know when you have a chance to do it again, to see him face to face,” she said.
Later Monday, Benedict was to celebrate a Mass at a Rome basilica, St. Paul Outside the Walls.
Since being elected pope April 19, Benedict has sought a more inclusive image.
Benedict’s effort to reach out to Jews carries an added dimension because of his membership in the Hitler Youth and later as a German army conscript during World War II. He has said he was forced into participating.
“With his German background, I certainly believe that he will be sympathetic toward Jews and I think he will continue the path of John Paul II, who made some very significant symbolic gestures,” said Menachem Friedman, a sociology professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel. “But I think it is much too early to comment.”
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.