The “Pearl of Great Price”
November 29, 2006
[Editor's note: This coverage of the pope's visit to Istanbul is made possible by exclusive arrangement with Inside the Vatican Magazine.]
"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye." --Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Did you ever come to a place and time and sense, suddenly, with an odd certainty, that it was this place, this time, toward which all your travels had been tending? And at that moment, did you ever feel that your arrival was not "fated," "predestined," as if compelled by some iron law (because each step you had taken had been free, completely) and yet at the same time... not entirely your own work? As if your own free choices had "echoed" in their freedom, a mysterious providence, outside of and beyond you, that had been awaiting its revealing through the unfolding of your own free decisions?
Such an experience came to me yesterday, in a small Catholic church in Istanbul, as I awaited Pope Benedict's arrival in the city.
Yesterday, Benedict XVI did arrive in Turkey, and, against many predictions, all went well. In a last-minute change of plans, showing the importance of this visit for the Turkish government, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his plane.
The pope then visited the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. He wrote a message in a guest book calling Turkey "a meeting point of different religions and cultures and a bridge between Asia and Europe."
He next met Turkey's head of religious affairs, Ali Bardakoglu. By this the pope, who is head of a state and of a world religion, displayed his humble willingness to meet a government minister as an equal.
Delivering his first keynote address, to Turkey's diplomatic corps (all those diplomats from around the world accredited to Turkey) he said, essentially, that leaders of all religions must "utterly refuse to sanction recourse to violence as a legitimate expression of faith." He also decried terrorism and "disturbing conflicts across the Middle East" and ended by saying, simply, "I hope my trip will bring many fruits."
Then he retired to rest and sleep.
Today, Benedict will continue on to Ephesus, to see the house believed to have been the last home of the Virgin Mary, and then, in the evening, he will come to Istanbul.
I, waiting in Istanbul yesterday, could not be in Ankara to see Benedict. So I went to a morning press conference given by Bishop Brian Farrell from the Vatican and Metropolitan Demetrios, head of the Greek Catholic Church in the United States. The press conference was held at the Hilton Hotel, which will fill up tonight with the rest of the Vatican press corps.
In the lobby of the Hilton, busy with journalists and cameramen and security personnel walking to and fro, chatting on cell phones and walkie-talkies, I saw someone I hadn't seen for 15 years: François Vayne, editor of a journal called Lourdes which chronicles everything about the site in France of the miracle of St. Bernadette.
"Oui?" he replied, in French. For a moment he didn't recognize me, then, "Ah! Bien sur! Inside the Vatican!"
We shook hands and began to exchange news. He told me he was staying with the Dominican fathers who live by the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul. (I did not even know there were any Dominicans in the city. I had been so focused on the Turkey's Orthodox and Muslims that I had forgotten the Catholics.)
"They are experts in Christian-Muslim relations," he said. "They have an important center in Cairo, and one Dominican, who lives in Iran, is Irish. He just arrived yesterday."
"Sounds interesting," I said. "Could I come over to visit and talk to them?"
"I see no reason why not. I'll ask them, and call you."
He gave me the address: Galata Kulesi Sok., #44, the Dominican convent next to the church.
I spent the next hour trying to improve my access to the upcoming events. The events in Istanbul this week will be so crowded that strict limits have been placed on who will be allowed into the various ceremonies. Journalists have been divided up, with small "pools" selected to represent hundreds of journalists who will not be permitted inside one or another of the churches or other venues.
I spend a considerable time talking with members of the American Greek Orthodox group I had seen the day before at Halki. The members are known as "Archons" because they support the Greek Orthodox patriarchate in Istanbul; without their support, it might vanish. (The comparable term for Catholics might be "Knights"). They represent the wealthy, committed leadership of the Greek Orthodox community in the US, and have come to Istanbul especially for these historic days. They will have special access to some ceremonies, and I wonder if they might find a way to include me.
But they are having difficulties, too. The Turkish government doesn't like the fact they are using the word "Ecumenical" to describe the Orthodox Patriarchate, and is threatening to void their credentials if they don't remove the word.
If the patriarch is "ecumenical," apparently, he would have some type of "supra-national" identity, and might escape the legal cage the Turkish government has constructed for him: that he must be a Turkish citizen, with a Turkish passport, not a Greek Orthodox from somewhere else, like Greece or America. But the Archons have written proudly on their identity cards "2006 Archon Pilgrimage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate."
"Government agents have taken down our banners downstairs," says Xanthi Karloutsos, a dignified middle-aged American Greek Orthodox woman who is staffing the accreditation table for journalists. (Her husband, Father Alexander Karloutsos, a Greek Orthodox priest close to Archbishop Demetrios, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, is one of the leaders of the delegation of Greek Americans.) "They started to try to take them down up here and I said to them, ‘Don't you dare. The banners stay.' And they stopped."
But whether the dispute is over isn't clear.
I call François and he tells me the Dominicans will welcome me at their convent. I invite Dan Schmidt, an American Catholic philanthropist from Milwaukee, to come along with me, and in the late afternoon we set out in a taxi.
We reach the top of Galata Kulesi street. There is a huge tower which rises up into the darkening sky. I call François on my cell phone. "Nous sommes arrivés." "D'accord."
We start down the street, looking for #44. We don't see it in the dark, and pass by. I call François again. "I'm already at the tower," he says." "We're down below now," I say. "Come back up and I'll show you the way." (I am astonished at our phones; I am calling him on a number in France, and he is calling me on one in the USA, while all the time we are 100 yards apart on a dark street in Istanbul.)
Mary, Our Guide
We meet. We go in a dark door, down a dark corridor, and meet the Dominicans. There are four, two from Italy, one from France, and one from Ireland. His name is Father Paul Lawlor, about 50 years old, born in Kerry.
All four have devoted their lives to the east, and are experts in Muslim-Christian relations. And all describe a similar stark reality.
"Have you read the book From the Holy Mountain?" Father Lawlor asks. "It's the story of a journey from Mount Athos around the eastern Mediterranean toward Alexandria. Every place the author goes he finds monasteries which once housed 300 monks, convents which once housed 200 nuns, kept alive by a handful of religious, sometimes only one. The Christian presence in the Middle East is dying.
"Have you ever come to an old house where you and members of your family once lived, only to find it abandoned and decaying? That is the situation of the Christian churches in the Middle East. It is the end of a tradition. It is very sad.
"But it is a beautiful book, very well done, very moving. You must read it."
We watch the pope on the monastery television as he addresses the diplomatic corps, speaking of the need for religious faith to protect "the fundamental dignity of man." When the speech ends, we visit the monastery. The Dominicans of Istanbul have a vast library of Christian and Islamic texts.
Finally, we enter the chapel. And it is here that we come before the greatest treasure the church possesses: the famous icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary Odighitria (the Guide).
The icon, set high on the wall, is splendid, the face of Mary expressive, tender, serene. The tradition is that St. Luke himself painted this icon, that it was taken to the Crimea, and then returned to this church in the 1300s by the Genovese, who for several hundred years controlled this whole section of Constantinople (the old name for Istanbul).
"But it is not authentic," Father Lawlor says. "It is a medieval copy."
"But how do you know?" I ask. "Did you ever do any sort of scientific study?"
The Dominicans look at one another. "No," Father Lawlor says.
"You could at least carbon date the wood," I say. "That would only take a very tiny fragment, and would give a result within a decade or so." But they do not seem interested.
Nor am I, to tell the truth. For me, the icon goes back to Mary, even if it is not the original. And beneath the gaze of those iconic eyes, time seems to stop, Istanbul in 2006 seems to fade away, and a whisper of eternity seems to echo through the church's empty nave.
Then we have to leave.
"It Was Completely Greek"
"Do you know," Father Lawlor says, "that in this area, 100 years ago, you could walk a mile in every direction and not hear a word of Turkish spoken? It was completely Greek. But now there are only a handful of Greeks left. They are almost gone. And there is a small Jewish community, descended from Spanish Jews who left Spain in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews. There are five synagogues just in this area. In 2004, one was bombed and completely destroyed.
"Now the area is home to hundreds of Iraqi Christians, who have fled Iraq because of the war. The children are very excited that the pope is coming, but they are lamenting the fact that they will not have an opportunity to pray with him. I was talking to some of them yesterday. They wanted to enter the church with him, but there is no room; they will have to stay outside. They will go to the Church of St. Anthony of Padua up the street, and watch on a big screen."
We walk up the street, along one of the most beautiful and busy streets in Istanbul. There are many shops, clean, well-lit. We come to a sign that says "Sent Antuan Katolik Kilisesi, OFM Conv." (Saint Anthony Catholic Church).
"Hundreds of Muslims come here each day to light candles and pray," Father Lawlor says. "You know, many of them venerate the saints, and the Blessed Virgin. In Iran, where I have worked since the 1970s, there would be a million new Christians overnight, if it were not for the present government. Iran is the pearl of great price. It is so beautiful there, and the people are so wonderful. But if you find the pearl of great price, and decide to buy it, you have to give everything you have, keeping nothing back. You cannot imagine how one suffers there."
Dr. Robert Moynihan is an American and veteran Vatican journalist with knowledge of five languages. He is editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine.