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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Reaching Out: The Popes in Turkey

Beginning with St. Peter himself, many popes have visited what was once the seat of Christianity: Turkey.

Anatolia has always been a kind of second Holy Land, reaching from Noah’s mountain of Ararat in the East to the warm water shores of the Mediterranean and the Aegean. It is a land of treasured memories: Paul growing up in Tarsus; the Virgin Mary, as tradition tells us, living out the last years of her life in the quiet hills of Ephesus; the birth and flourishing of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.

It was from Anatolia, where for centuries East and West met and mingled, that earliest Christianity, its Semitic nature influenced by the Hellenism of the East, passed outwards to a still pagan Europe. Much later, as old Rome fell increasingly under the darkness of barbarian night, the Christian flame was rekindled and burned again at Constantine’s city, Constantinople, that was called the Second Rome.

And reminding us that papal visits to the East are no innovation of our own generation, for as long as Christian emperors sat upon the throne of Byzantium there came a procession of Popes from Rome to Constantinople, traveling back to the motherland of our Faith, the East. They came, those long ago Popes, remembering an even earlier tradition, that of the first Pope, Peter, who tarried at Asian Antioch in Syria, on the River Orontes, where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” A church built in a cave in the cliffs overlooking the town is still called the Grotto Church of St. Peter.

After Peter, two Popes who would later become saints journeyed to Constantinople: John I in 525, and Agapetus I a decade later. They took the long and dangerous road from Rome to help steer the Church through rough waters at a time when Christians still struggled to settle doctrinal matters that we have taken for granted for centuries.

One of the longest sojourns of any pontiff at Constantinople was that of Pope Vigilius. Religious and political disputes kept him in the city from 546 until 555, under the sometimes angry gaze of the Emperor Justinian. Once, when Justinian ordered Vigilius’ arrest, the Pope fled the emperor’s wrath and sought sanctuary in a church. When the imperial soldiers came to seize him, he held fast to the columns of the altar. Like Samson in the temple, Vigilius brought the pillars down on the heads of the emperor’s men in what Constantinopolitans called an act of divine intercession.

Not for 155 years did another Pope come to Constantinople. Then after the arrival of Pope Constantine I in 710, more than a thousand years would pass before an envoy from Rome would come to the city of Constantine. Meanwhile, Europe would be darkened by barbarian invasions, schism in 1054 would tear the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom apart, and in 1453, what was left of an enfeebled Constantinople would fall to the Ottoman Conquest.

In the half a thousand years that went by after the fall of Constantinople, men of different faiths looked at each other with fear or hatred. The East perennially reproached the West for the excesses of the Fourth Crusade, Europe ignored the woes of the East, and Muslims regarded all Christians with the kind of well-founded suspicion taught them by the incursions of the crusaders. What was needed was the healing touch of a man of God. But no Pope came to the East.

Then, in 1935, as if to pave the way for the arrival of Pope Paul VI’s mission two decades later, a man named Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli appeared in Constantine’s city, now known as Istanbul. Little supposing that someday he would be Pope, Monsignor Roncalli, Apostolic Delegate to both the Turks and the Greeks, at once began to show the conciliatory spirit that would animate later efforts to mend the centuries-old breach between East and West.

The Turkish years of the future Pope John XXIII are not much heeded or remembered in the West, but the elderly priests of Istanbul who outlived him recall a happy and talkative Italian priest, well-loved by everyone. For almost ten years Monsignor Roncalli lived in the same simple quarters, going from church to church and speaking his Italian-accented French as he made his rounds among the Christians of Istanbul.

His concern for mankind went far beyond the parochial limits of his own Catholic flock. When the Nazis overran much of Europe and turned their fury on the most vulnerable of their victims, the kindly Roncalli, without fanfare or any public notice, assured safe passage to Muslim Turkey for terrified Jews, who then found their way to the West.

When a new Turkish law forbade the wearing of clerical garb except in houses of worship – a ban that fell most heavily on the more numerous Muslim imams – Roncalli won Muslim respect and astonished everyone by his reaction. Others bridled at the law or even prepared to leave Turkey, but before they had time to conform, the Apostolic Delegate appeared in public in lay garb. He did so not only to obey the law, but to demonstrate his strong feelings about equality.

More than anything else, it was Monsignor Roncalli’s humble and paternal approach to humanity that later made possible full diplomatic relations between Muslim Turkey and the Vatican. Father Giacomo Carotenuto, an Italian priest living in Istanbul, recalls that the Apostolic Delegate sought no favor for himself: “He came poor, and left poor.” Father Carotenuto proudly shows the cap and gloves of the former Monsignor Roncalli at Istanbul, cherished now not just as relics of a great Pope, but as memories of a good and gentle priest.

Years later, in 1967, the motorcade of Pope Paul VI rolled through a great gap in the walls of Istanbul, and a reigning pontiff entered the city of Constantine for the first time in over 1200 years. The spirit of humanitarianism that illumined the entire career of John XXIII found full expression when Paul VI exchanged embraces with the late Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I. East and West came a step closer with the mutual withdrawal of excommunication between the Pope and the Patriarch.

Under the mighty dome of Santa Sophia, Justinian’s huge basilica of Holy Wisdom, the visiting pontiff, overcome with emotion, dropped to his knees in prayer before the altar. Santa Sophia, once a church and later a mosque, is now a museum, but the great vault overhead is still blazoned with its Byzantine mosaic of the Virgin and the Holy Child. Paul VI’s act of spontaneous prayer, which surprised his Muslim hosts and his own Catholic entourage, was the first public demonstration of Christian prayer to occur in Santa Sophia since the days of the Ottoman Conquest.

When Paul prayed at the Panaya Kapulu, the simple stone house in the Ephesian hills which tradition identifies as the Virgin’s last home on earth, he touched the hearts of Muslims as well as Christians. The house, its walls hung with crutches and other mementos of cures believed to be miraculous, is a holy place to Muslims too, the abode of the Virgin, who is honored as Mother Mary by the faithful of Islam.

With the departure of Paul VI, twelve years would pass before a Pope came to Turkey again. But circumstances had never been so propitious for such a visit. The conciliatory gesture of the West was never needed more than in 1979, the year the new Pope chose to make his state visit to the republic of the Turks. In the Near East, Islam has been enjoying a revival, spurred on by the reaffirmation of Islamic philosophical traditions that many Muslims felt were threatened by Western materialism. Now a powerful Pope had come to the East, proclaiming the spiritual values of the West.

The most heralded reason for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Turkey was his meeting with Patriarch Dimitrius I to renew the work of healing the still painful rift between Christians of the East and the West. As he flew eastward on his journey of reconciliation, the pontiff said, “It is necessary to go there now. It is the feast of St. Andrew. I must go for ecumenical reasons. I am in the hands of God.”

Equally important was the meaning of John Paul’s presence among 45 million Muslim Turks. From the moment he landed in Turkey on November 28th, hailing his honor guard with the words, “Merhaba asker!” (Greetings, Soldiers!), his Turkish hosts were moved by his enthusiasm and good will. He astonished them when he knelt after alighting from the plane at Ankara’s Esenboga Airport, and Turkish newspapers ran banner headlines: “Pope kisses Muslim ground!” Newsmen followed him eagerly as he stepped through the gates of Topkapi Palace, for hundreds of years the home of Turkish Sultan-Caliphs.

Said the official Turkish Chronicle, “The visit of Pope John Paul II, who is the leader of the most historic institution of the Western world, can be considered, in a way, a returning from the West to the East.” And the Turkish press reflected, “The Pope is coming to Turkey holding an olive branch, the sign of peace and international tranquility.”

Journalists took eager note of John Paul’s words, “I esteem Islam as a monotheistic religion.” They reported how the pontiff, before leaving Ankara for Istanbul, told Catholics at the Chapel of St. Paul in the Italian Embassy that Islam and Christianity should promote a kind of solidarity, that “this is a necessity of our age and an order of God.”

Not surprisingly, there were no cheering crowds of thousands to greet John Paul’s progress through Muslim Turkey, as there had been in Mexico, Poland, Ireland and the United States. But there must have been times in Istanbul when the silence seemed all the more dramatic, where meetings of Popes and emperors in another age had once focused the attention of the world.

The presence of Pope John Paul II among Christians and Muslims of the Second Rome was a blessing that will continue to bear fruit. It was also a reminder to the West that on his peacemaking pilgrimage to the East, the Pope had, as the Turks so rightly said, “come back.” He had returned to the wellsprings of our Faith, the East.

Charles E. Adelsen, an American journalist, lives in Istanbul and writes frequently about the Middle East.

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