Today the Holy Father, on his visit to Turkey, will visit Haghia Sophia, the ancient Church of the Holy Wisdom of God, known to the ancient world simply as 'The Great Church.' It is, to my mind, one of the most extraordinary buildings in the world, and the pinnacle of Byzantine achievement. Its celebrated dome was believed by many to be suspended from heaven, and its beauty so overwhelmed the emperor Justinian that as he entered the newly completed Church on 27 December 537, he is reputed to have murmured, "Solomon, I have surpassed thee!"
The Great Church has, alas, been the scene of some of the most dramatic, and painful, episodes of Church history. In 1057, Cardinal Humbert, the Papal Legate, threw upon its altar the Bull excommunicating the Patriarch, Michael Cerularios - an act held to have marked the beginning of the Schism between Catholic and Orthodox Churches. In 1204 Crusaders, led by the blind Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, sacked Haghia Sophia, and set a prostitute to dance in the Patriarch's throne in mockery of the Greek rituals.
On Monday 28 May 1453, with the Turkish army massing for its final attack upon constantinople, the last Emperor of the Byzantines, Constantine Palaiologus, joined Orthodox and Latins in prayer in the Great Church. Differences forgotten, he begged forgiveness of all, as they prayed for deliverance of the city. The next day, the city fell, and a terrified populace rushed to Haghia Sophia in the vain hope that it would offer safety. The doors were battered in, and the Turkish conquerors killed or enslaved those inside. It is said that the monks carried on chanting the Divine Office until the moment they were snatched. Shortly afterwards, the Turkish Sultan Mehmed the II entered the Great Church, commanded that its crosses be thrown down, and that it become a Mosque. The Turks had long prized the building, and have looked after it well; their greatest architect, Sinan, payed homage to it again and again in his mosques which dominate the Istanbul skyline. In 1935, Haghia Sophia was converted into a museum, and the surviving mosaics - of exquisite beauty - were uncovered and restored.
The visit today of the Pope is therefore rich in symbolism, and a powerful message of healing and reconciliation. Let us pray that this difficult visit to Istanbul may bring a greater understanding between faiths, and point to a restoration of unity between Catholic and Orthodox Chrisitanity. It is a poignant moment especially for us at Westminster, where our Cathedral owes so much in architecture, decoration and (above all) spiritual atmosphere to the Great Church of Constantinople.