In Ephesus, Supreme Pontiff becomes a simple country pastor

Ephesus, Turkey

On a beautiful fall afternoon on a Turkish hillside, Pope Benedict XVI, Supreme Pontiff of the 1.1 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church, metamorphosed into a simple country pastor, celebrating an outdoor Mass for no more than 300 pilgrims – perhaps half Germans who belong to the nearby German-language parish of St. Nicholas.

It was the smallest crowd in recent memory for a papal Mass, though the turnout was mostly due to the remote location and the tiny size of Turkey’s Christian community. The event had an intimate feel, with the assembly physically closer to the pope than is often the case. The bank of concelebrating priests, bishops and cardinals almost seemed equal to the size of the congregation.

In a fitting pastoral touch, Benedict XVI spoke the opening collect of the Mass in Turkish, drawing appreciative nods from the assembly.

Predictably, the pope’s message centered on Mary. The Sanctuary of Meryem Ana Evì (the “House of Mary”) was founded by the Lazarist Fathers in the 19th century, based on the visions of the German mystic Anna Katherine Emmerick, who identified this spot as the place where Mary died.

Though even the official Vatican Radio trip book notes that there’s no archaeological evidence to support the claim, the sanctuary nevertheless boasts a unique distinction, in that it’s perhaps the only Marian shrine on earth which draws as many Muslim pilgrims as Christians. Inside are votive reliefs with quotations from seven passages of the Qu’ran praising Mary.

Invoking the reverence which Muslims have for Mary, Benedict implored the small crowd to “lift up a prayer to the Lord, a special prayer for peace between peoples.” He referred to the Anatolian peninsula as “a natural bridge between continents.”

Benedict also again recalled the memory of Pope John XXIII, who served as Apostolic Delegate in Turkey from 1933 to 1945. Benedict quoted the late pope as saying, “I love the Turks.”

For Turkey’s tiny Christian community, estimated at roughly 100,000 among Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, it’s becoming steadily more clear that Benedict’s trip represents something of a “coming out” event, emboldening them to be more vocal about their presence and the struggles their communities face.

Eisn Tunali, 38, is a Muslim covert to Protestantism who drove six hours to attend the papal Mass in Ephesus. She told NCR that when she converted to Christianity six years ago, it took three months to have her new religious affiliation reflected on her Turkish identity card, and her request actually elicited a period of police surveillance.

“They told me that Islam is the third revelation of God” after Judaism and Christianity, Tunali said. “They asked why I wanted to go back.”

Today, Tunali said, things are becoming easier in some ways – as reflected by the fact, she said, that today it only takes about five minutes to change the identity card.

Asked about Benedict XVI’s comments on Islam at the University of Regensburg, Tunali said she agreed with the substance of what the pope had tried to say, but not with the language. She said this trip allows Turks to get a different impression of the pope.

“They can see that anybody can make a mistake,” she said. “This is kind of like an apology.”

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