Pope Benedict Reaches Out to Muslims

April 26, 2005

New York Times/International Herald Tribune

ROME, April 25 - On his first official full day as pope, Benedict XVI on Monday reached out for the first time to Muslims, saying he was "grateful" for their presence at his investiture ceremony and hoped for a "growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians" at local and international levels.
There were many such surprises during Benedict's public appearances on Monday, giving the world its first glimpse perhaps of the priorities and style that will define his papacy.
A man who had been widely criticized as a narrow-minded theologian reached out to other religions. A man who previously talked about creating a purer, smaller Roman Catholic Church was talking about offering Catholicism to the world. A man whose previous public face was stern and remote turned funny, personal - physical even.
Comparing being elected pope to being beheaded by a guillotine, he said he had prayed during last week's conclave of cardinals that he would not win the job.
"As slowly the balloting showed me that, so to speak, the guillotine would fall on me, I got quite dizzy," he told an audience of 5,000 German pilgrims Monday morning. "I had thought I had done my life's work and could now hope for a peaceful end of my days.
"So with deep conviction, I told the Lord: 'Don't do this to me! You have younger and better men, who can do this work with different verve and strength.' "
Then he said, with a sigh, "This time he didn't listen to me."
Benedict, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has been a conservative fixture of Vatican life for more than two decades as chief of the church's office for doctrine, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Many liberal-leaning Catholics have worried about what his reign would be like. But as has become increasingly clear in the days since his election last Tuesday, his priorities as pope are likely to be broader and more outward looking than those of the cardinal he was.
"The first stage of his life, in Germany, he was an immensely gifted theologian, and then he got a job at the Vatican, which was to clarify expressions of Catholic faith," said the Rev. Roderick Strange, rector of Beda College in Rome. "Now it's Chapter 3 of his life, and in this new atmosphere, we see a new man emerging."
In the morning, Benedict had a formal closed-door meeting with leaders of other religions who had traveled to Italy for his investiture ceremony on Sunday. At this meeting, according to a Vatican transcript, he offered generous praise for leaders of other religions, including - for the first time - a specific nod to Islam, a faith about which he had expressed reservations when he was a cardinal.
Even on Sunday, in his first official homily as pope, Benedict mentioned the need to build bridges with other Christians and with Jews, but did not mention Muslims. On Monday, he seemed purposefully to be correcting that omission.
"I am particularly grateful for the presence in our midst of members of the Muslim community," he said. "I assure you that the church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions."
On Monday evening, he made his first official trip out of the Vatican, to St. Paul's Outside the Walls, where he visited the tomb of St. Paul, one of the church's great evangelizers.
"The church is by nature missionary, and its primary task is evangelization," he said, praising the "inimitable" missionary spirit of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
Many experts had predicted that if Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, his would be an inward-looking papacy in which he would return the church to its theological roots, accepting a smaller church if it was more ideologically pure.
On Monday, he indicated that the new job description required a shift in tone and policy.
In many ways the most remarkable sight of the day was that of the former Cardinal Ratzinger playing skillfully, if sheepishly, to crowds.
Faced with 6,000 screaming worshipers at St. Paul's, he beamed and waved as he walked slowly down the aisle surrounded by black-suited security guards, shaking hands, caressing babies and bending down to touch the heads of little children.
In the morning, speaking at the Vatican in his native German to the crowd of German pilgrims, he apologized with self-deprecating humor that the meeting with religious leaders had run late. "Germans are used to punctuality," he joked. "I'm already very Italian."
"He was beaming with joy," said the Rev. Rudolph Kutschera, from Emsdetten, Germany. "It was a wonderful speech, very open-minded. He asked us to trust him, and we will."