Father John H. Boccella, Minister General of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis, with Pope John XXIII. (photo: Foto Felici, compliments of Henry Angelo-Castrillion)
Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, only the one of Smyrna survives today. Now called Izmir, it has always demanded something special of its Christians, and especially of its leaders. In the second half of the twentieth century, new leadership was needed to continue the dynamic work of its first shepherds and to maintain a Christian presence in a predominantly Muslim country. The spirit of Vatican II would guide this new leader.
John Henry Boccella was called to this special mission by Pope Paul VI in June of 1968. From the first he had answered his vocation with the spirit of Francis of Assisi, entering the Franciscan Third Order Regular in 1941. His tireless ministry led to an appointment as Minister General of the Third Order in 1947.
Boccella again relied on the counsel of Francis as he approached his assignment in Turkey. The gentle saint had written in Regola non ballata of 1221 that those missionaries who go among Muslims can establish spiritual contact with them through humble service for the love of God. By confessing and bearing witness to their Christianity, these missionaries will create not disputes but brotherhood. The new archbishop also began his work in light of the Second Vatican Council’s encouragement to collaborate with Muslims to defend and promote together social justice, moral values, peace, and liberty.
Directed by the humility and compassion called for by his Christian heritage, the new archbishop of Izmir soon earned the Turks respect. In turn he received permission to rebuild earthquake-damaged churches and to keep them in shape. The foundation stones of the early Church throughout Turkey were soon set upright again. His zeal made a livable home of what might have become the bare ruins of the Church here.
This Christian churchman not only reconstructed the precious relics of his faith but also built bridges that reached from his own communicants to all people within his episcopacy. The Muslims of his archdiocese in Turkey, where 98% of the people follow the path of Islam, enjoyed the same respect and benevolence which he showed his flock of Christians. The archbishop donated most of his inheritance almost a million Turkish liras to Izmirs municipal institution for the old and needy so it could build a modern shelter for the care of the Yoksullar, the destitute ones. In the spirit of Francis his concern for these Muslim brethren brought some of them to medical specialists in Europe as well as assisting them on their native soil.
Boccella respected the different ways people worship God and celebrate their holy days. On Muslim feast days, he would buy sheep after the Muslim custom and give them to the director of the House of the Destitute to prepare for its residents, the better to help them rejoice on their holidays. At Christmas, celebrated among the Muslim Turks as Noel Bayram, the birthday of their prophet Isa (Jesus), and on the New Year too, the archbishop would come bearing gifts for his Muslim friends: as many as ten turkeys at a time, as well as box after box of bananas, tangerines, and apples. How the poor and the old of Izmir looked forward to the holiday visits of this ItaloAmerican Christian in their midst!
The archbishops love for the people of Islam showed in simple ways. For instance, he befriended Ali, a poor man who had lost a leg to gangrene and hoped for alms outside the Cathedral of St. John. The archbishop never disappointed Ali. Each Sunday the two exchanged words, blessings, and expressions of charity and love. The archbishop did not rest content until his Muslim friend found a place in a hospital, where he was well cared for until his death.
Not long afterward, John Henry Boccella also fell victim to crippling gangrene. The man Pope Paul VI called the second founder of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis lost his legs in 1977. This energetic priest has gone back to Rome, where he lives in a simple room at the Clinica Villa Claudia on the Via Flaminia Nuova.
Some persons are notable for their lives of quiet faith and active love. As his friend Father Succi of Izmir says of John Henry Boccella, his love is so powerful that it disarms those before him, winning at once their esteem, confidence, and love with his warm embrace for all. In a truly modern way he lives spreading about him the love taught by Jesus.
Such was the missionary presence of Archbishop Boccella in Turkey. His witness there has already become imperishable testimony to the enduring Christian presence begun on this Aegean shore by Saints Paul and Polycarp. He also has established the means by which Christians and Muslims can cooperate in Turkey.
The Vaticans Secretariat for Non-Christians noted in a 1984 document that The great problems with which humanity is struggling call on Christians to work together with other believers by virtue of their respective faiths. The Secretariat may well have been thinking of the model of Archbishop Boccellas work in Turkey. Certainly its statement on dialogue and mission, which builds upon Vatican IIs positions, applies to the cooperation the archbishop established between Christian and Muslim in Turkey: In this type of encounter, the partners come to mutual understanding and appreciation of each others spiritual values and cultural categories and promote communion and fellowship among people. Such a legacy is the mortar holding together the bridges in Turkey today.
Charles Adelsen is a writer living in Turkey.