(Vatican Radio) Breaking another record for papal trips, Pope Francis on Friday sets off on his second international journey this week, travelling to the Turkish cities of Ankara and Istanbul. Just three days after his trip to Strasbourg for meetings with the European Parliament and Council of Europe, the Pope takes off for Turkey at the invitation of both the government there and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the Orthodox world.
Francis is the fourth pope to travel to Turkey, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, while Archbishop Angelo Roncalli is also remembered with great affection by the Turkish people, as he served as apostolic delegate there for nine years before being elected Pope John XXIII.
But what kind of reception is Pope Francis likely to receive in this country, often described as a bridge between East and West? What preparations have been taking place in a country where Christians number less than 1 percent of the population, divided into different Catholic and Orthodox rites and communities?
To find some answers to those questions, Philippa Hitchen spoke to Dominican Father Claudio Monge, who heads a Centre for Cultural and Interreligious Dialogue in Istanbul….
Fr Claudio says the Catholic community is, as he puts it, joining “the journey of Pope Francis that was organized first of all by the Patriarch” who invited him to celebrate the feast of Saint Andrew with the Orthodox Church on November 30th. At the same time, he says the Catholic community will have “a special time”, albeit a very short meeting with the Pope on November 29th in the Latin Catholic Cathedral. Although it's a short encounter, he says “we need really this presence ….. as a tiny minority in this country, this is very important for us.
Speaking about the Catholic community in Turkey, Fr Claudio continues, means not only a tiny minority but also of a community that is split in at least four major rites, Latin, Armenian, Syrian, and Chaldean, and it is not always easy to find a common way, even to experience a common Eucharist together…..
Asked how the role and place of the Catholic Church in Turkish society has changed since the previous visit of Pope Benedict in 2006, Fr Claudio says in a juridical sense, not much has changed. “I mean at that time and even today, we know very well the first biggest problem is that we don’t have juridical statues, he says, “we are really foreigners in this country, with no official rights”…… Although recently there was a process to reform the Constitution, he says, everything seems to have been put on hold because of the other urgent problems of the region, especially on the Iraqi border which takes the attention of the Turkish government….
Speaking of the difficulties within the Catholic Church, Fr Claudio says two bishops are very close to retirement age so there is a tendency “to wait for something new that will come in few months”. Furthermore he reiterates the fact that the Turkish Catholic Bishop’s conference is composed of churches of different rites, something which is a richness but at the same time “demands much more important organization” in order to share together daily or to work together on training and formation. This is a very big problem, he says, and the tendency is to be limited to normal Sunday liturgical life without any effort to create new ties and to think about new generations. Although the Latin Catholic Church struggles to keep young people in Turkey, there are still quite numerous Armenian or Syrian young people, but he says there is a growing distance between the generations, requiring a “renewal of deep faith” and “Christian engagement in the daily life”….
Asked what message he hopes the Pope can bring in this very complex context, Fr Claudio says it’s essential to remember that “our sources and the origin of the Christian message was based also in this (region) because in Anatolia, Asia Minor, as it was called at the time of the New Testament, Christianity was “a simple, fresh, testimony in a hard time, and never, never in these places Christians were majority”. Because of this, he says, “it is important, even in our weakness, to welcome Pope Francis ….we are actually a church that is a bit like a hospital of people that are weak, that need to be supported, need to be encouraged, but I think that the good news is still working here” ….
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