Part of our history: Pope Benedict visits Istanbul

 Bridge uniting Europe and Asia over the Bosphorus Bridge uniting Europe and Asia over the Bosphorus

Istanbul, December 3, 2006

Dear Little Sisters and friends,

'We wanted to publish this letter because of its positive outlook for Ecumenism and inter-faith diologue'.

Benedict XVI in Istanbul

Thank you for your thoughts and messages on the occasion of the visit of Benedict XVI to Istanbul. We would like to share some echoes from that happy occasion. Yes, the country was a bit in turmoil before the event, but the welcoming gesture from Prime Minister Erdogan on the arrival of the Pope at the airport set the tone for his stay in Turkey, as did the gift the Prime Minister respectfully gave him - a beautiful Turkish vase.

Already the day after, the Turkish newspapers displayed in big titles: "All begins well, the Pope speaks of tolerance and peace", or "Welcome...", "The Pope calls for dialogue", "The dark clouds have disappeared", or still, "A visit which warms the world". What also touched peoples’ hearts was when Benedict XVI, at the mausoleum of Atatirk, spoke the words of this national hero:

"Peace in the country, peace in the world", then, later, those of John XXIII: "I love the Turkish people".

An amusing article in one paper reported that at the airport, in front of the soldiers all lined up, Benedict forgot the words he was meant to say in Turkish to greet them and instead said what they should have answered!

All these days the press published beautiful photos, some with kind humour, such as putting in line three photos of the Pope with his frock clock, then his cape, following the circumstances. His simple approach, thankful and showing interest for the Turkish people, touched the hearts and the piety of those who welcomed him. Respect, truth, simplicity, that lightened the atmosphere.

With Ali Bardakoglu

The official meeting with the minister of religion, Ali Bardakoglu, took on a special seriousness. The minister alluded to and answered to the discourse of Ratisbonne, when proclaiming his faith and the mission of Islam in the twenty first century. Benedict XVI answered by professing his Christian faith in the Unique God of love and peace and affirming the possibility of dialogue among all religions and Cultures. Ali Bardakoglu summarized his impressions: 

“It was a very good message. He has presented a very good image of Turkey.”

The rights of peoples and small Communities

With the diplomatic corps of Ankara, the Pope brought up the question of the rights of peoples and of little communities. He recognized that the secularism of Turkey could help the country take big steps toward modernity. Benedict, in pronouncing again his respect for this great country with its Muslim majority, made a vow that he might be a bridge between the East and the West.

Before his departure for Izmir, the police in charge of his security were with him at the Nunciature of Ankara. The Pope thanked them for their protective service and wanted to be photographed with them.

Ephesus-Izmir

The very little Latin Church exploded with joy at Meryemana (where St. John lived with Mary near Ephesus-Izmir), when Benedict arrived as a pilgrim and celebrated Mass there. He greeted the people close to him and each of the priests from the southern part of Turkey. How could we not think of the Apostle Paul and the faithful of Asia Minor?

As he came down from the plane at Istanbul in the afternoon, it was Governor Muammer Giiler who welcomed him with respectful kindness and led him to the hall where he could immediately greet Patriarch Bartholomew and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Mesrop II. The cortege left directly for the church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Vigil of St Andrew at the Church of the Ecumenical Patriarch

Despite the closing of a large area for security reasons, two of us were able to go for this Vigil of St. Andrew (Vespers and Doxology of welcome). Many television sets were set up to immortalize this historical moment of Benedict visit to the Ecumenical Patriarch who greeted him in his church with these words: "Welcome, my dear brother." Special ‘tropaires’ were sung on this occasion in honour of St. Andrew, of St. Benedict and "the coming of the Primate of the Venerable Church of Rome, to the City of Constantine where the flame of St. Andrew who was the first to be called by the Lord, burns brightly"

A Turkish newspaper wrote: “After the kiss of Peace, Bartholomew and Benedict entered the Basilica together and followed the doxology sitting down in front of the iconostase, facing the people, before saying together in Greek, the Our Father. Then they venerated the relics of St. John Chrysostome and of Gregory of Nazianze, our common Fathers who were Patriarchs in the time when the Church was undivided."

We sang two ‘polychronion’ to ask God the grace of long years, for each of our two Pastors.

Pope Benedict with Patriarch BatholomewPope Benedict with Patriarch Batholomew

Then Bartholomew received Benedict in his room in his simply way that we are familiar with. Their joy was visible on the big screen installed in the courtyard to transmit to everyone this visit inside the Patriarchate. It was a prelude to the Liturgy of the next day, which was of great importance, celebrating together the Liturgy of heaven, expressing their desire for full communion between the Churches.

Celebration at the Phanar

As many of the faithful in the city we were unable to go to Phanar for this Liturgy. The security services blocked all means of transport. It was all transmitted very well however on television.

The various visits prepared by Pope Benedict touched the hearts of those who met him and enabled him to ‘feel’ the soul and culture of the country. He was able to listen and showed genuine interest in the history of Aghia Sophia of Constantinople. His discovery full of admiration for the beauty of the blue mosque and for the piety of the ‘mufti’ expressed his esteem and his love for all. The following day we read in the press: "He visited the museum of St. Sophia and at the mosque of Sultan Ahmet he took off his red shoes and prayed, turning toward Mecca." The beauty of the gift offered by the "mufti" expressed more than what words could convey. The message read: "In the name of God..." painted in the form of white doves on an olive branch. It was the same as the gift offered by the Pope - a painting representing a famous mosaic of Rome, white doves drinking from a chalice. These gestures full of meaning did not go unnoticed.

The Pope continued his pilgrimage to the Armenian Apostolic Church. During the prayer service he called to mind that "fear and mistrust should from now on belong in the past."

Then he received at the Nunciature the Great Rabbi of Istanbul, the Orthodox Syriac Metropolitan and a big group of 160 young Catholic people of Istanbul from different rites.

At the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit

As you know, Pope Benedict finished his trip by the celebration of the Liturgy at the little Latin cathedral of the Holy Spirit, in presence of the Ecumenical Patriarch - welcomed into the church by the Pope himself. The Armenian Apostolic Patriarch Mesrop II, the Orthodox Syriac Metropolitan Yusuf Cetin, representatives of several Protestant churches, Catholic bishops of different rites and numerous priests were also present.

 The choirs, Armenian, Latin and Syriac (formed by Iraqi refugees), sang hymns and songs for the Mass. Numerous civil and military authorities were in the assembly. Two of us went with two of our elderly friends, and Little sister Sofia was one of those who received communion from the hand of the Pope.

It was a simple but moving celebration because we felt the Church as one, assembled around Jesus Christ, in presence of Peter and Andrew. The Catholics let their love burst out joyfully for the Pope and the Patriarch, by applauding shouting ‘you-you's’. Pope Benedict thanked the churches and the authorities of the city warmly. He even thanked the people of Istanbul for their patience at having their daily life disturbed!

     We can't finish without adding this phrase from a Turkish newspaper of December 2nd: “The world commented about this historical visit - he conquered the heart of the Muslims.” All the local press underlined his desire for dialogue among religions. The Prefect of Istanbul even expressed the vow that he comes back to Istanbul and an article by someone representing the Minister of Religion was particularly positive.

    In the joy of sharing with you these days which were so rich, and in the hope that it be the dawn of a new era.