Following in the footsteps of St Paul the Apostle
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Bishop Luigi Padovese, the Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia and the President of the Turkish Bishops’ Conference.
The Year of St Paul, announced on the occasion of the 2000th birth anniversary of the Apostle to the Nations, begins on 28 June 2008. The Turkish Church is planning to open the Year of St Paul on 21 June in Tarsus, his birthplace. Our editorial board has joined the anniversary celebrations. The book entitled ‘Kroczac za sw. Pawlem’ [Following St Paul] by Jacek Jan Pawlowicz is available in the series ‘Biblioteka Niedzieli’. Next week (issue 25) we are inserting a small album presenting the places connected with St Paul in Rome, Greece and Asia Minor. Soon we are going to publish an interview with Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, Archpriest of the Saint Paul Outside the Walls Basilica.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – On 28 June 2008, during solemn vespers in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, Benedict XVI is announcing the Year of St Paul, which will be celebrated from 28 June 2008 till 29 June 2009. On that occasion the Catholic bishops in Turkey issued a special letter, welcoming enthusiastically the papal initiative. The letter was read in all churches on 24 January, the day before the Feast of Conversion of St Paul the Apostle. Why are the celebrations of the Year of St Paul so important to the Turkish Church?
Bishop Luigi Padovese: – In our letter we explain why the Year of St Paul is so important to the Church in Turkey. The legacy of St Paul is ‘to be shared by all disciples of Christ’ but in a special way by Turkish Christians, ‘sons of the land where the Apostle was born, unceasingly proclaimed Christ and testified to him in many trials.’
– In a word, you remind the faithful that St Paul was born in Tarsus (present Turkey) and is a son of your land…
– The Year of St Paul was announced on the occasion of the 2000th anniversary of the saint’s birth, and he was born here; the territory of his missionary activities and journeys was mainly the region that is called ‘Turkey’ today.
– That’s why in their letter the Turkish bishops wrote that ‘it was here that the Apostle covered the majority of 10,000 miles of his journeys within less than 30 years. It was here that he experienced hostility and all sacrifices to proclaim Jesus Christ and his Gospel, and was exposed to deathly dangers and was also imprisoned’…
– Thus we explain that the first bond, which connects the Apostle and us, is – I would say – of ‘geographical’ character. But this is not the only connection. In fact, the message of St Paul originated in the context of the local Christian communities. It is worth mentioning for example the Letters to the Galatians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Thessalonians or Colossians. Today, as in the apostolic times, Christians constitute a minority in Turkey, having little importance in the predominantly Muslim society.
– Has the Catholic Church invited other Turkish Christian communities to take part in the celebrations of the Year of St Paul?
– Because of the papal initiative I met Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II Minas-Vartan Mutafyan and the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Filuskinos Yusuf Çetin. On 25 January, the Feast of St Paul’s Conversion, there was an ecumenical ceremony in Tarsus, with the participation of representatives of other Churches. All of them showed great openness and will to collaborate.
– What programme of the Year of St Paul has the Turkish Church prepared?
– The official opening of the Year will be held in Tarsus on 21 June. Some representatives of the Turkish authorities will take part in it. The next day, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will celebrate solemn Mass in the church-museum of St Paul in the town of the Apostle. We have planned an international youth meeting in summer and then a national pilgrimage to Antioch and Tarsus. On 22-24 June there will be a symposium on St Paul the Apostle in Tarsus and Iskenderun. Moreover, there will be many events of religious, ecumenical and cultural character.
– Are the Turkish authorities collaborating with the Church as far as the preparation of the Year of St Paul is concerned?
– The Turkish authorities – both the central and local ones – are aware of the meaning of St Paul for Christians. The biggest problem is that there is no church in Tarsus.
– You mean, there is no Catholic church in the hometown …
– In Tarsus there is actually a historical church dedicated to the Apostle but it has been changed into a museum. You can visit it and after obtaining special permission you can celebrate Mass there. For my part, as the bishop of the place, I want Christians to have their own place of worship. There is a difference between celebrating Mass in church and in a museum!
– Is the problem with the Church of St Paul in Tarsus incidental?
– I am afraid, it is not. Numerous old Christian places of worship have been transformed into museums. In fact, pilgrims can visit them but they ceased to be places of worship.
– Speaking of St Paul, we cannot omit the argument of his missionary activities. Today, in the Muslim world you can hardly follow the Apostle to the Nations. Christians, living in predominantly Muslim countries, stress that they have only the right to worship; there is no religious freedom with its necessary elements: freedom of conscience, the right to convert and freedom to proclaim the Gospel in public. What is the situation in Turkey?
– In Turkey – at least theoretically – there is freedom of worship and freedom of religion, and consequently, it allows changing your faith, contrary to other Muslim countries. However, conversion of a Muslim into Christianity is seen as apostasy. Therefore, the problem is not the state laws but the rooted culture, which stigmatises conversion from Islam into other religion as an act of apostasy. In his speech to the people of Athens St Paul expressed his admiration for them since they were people who sought God. It is true that he proclaimed Jesus Christ to them but his starting point was his sympathy for people seeking God. It seems to me that similarly we can begin our dialogue with the Muslim world. If this dialogue transforms into ‘dialogue of life’ with time, many words will become unnecessary.
– My last interview with you was conducted after the murder of Fr Andrea Santoro. Then the situation of Christians in Turkey was very difficult. What has changed since those dramatic events?
– It seems that the attitude of the central authorities towards Christianity has improved since there is no mistrust and attempts to hinder our activities. I have the impression that the authorities show more concern for the problem of minorities (I mean not only the Christian minority). However, Turkey has many ‘souls’ and it happens that there are people hostile to Christianity. This is the attitude of some groups that identify ‘Turkishness’ with Islam. In such a way of reasoning a good Turk is a Sunni Muslim. If someone has such views he does not accept the existence of Christian reality in Turkey, and if such a reality exists it should be marginalized.
– As a rule, Christians who want to discover the roots of their faith go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Jesus’ land. It is often forgotten that Christianity also has its roots in Asia Minor (present day Turkey) where the Church originated and numerous Christian communities were formed. Should the Year of St Paul not be an occasion to discover our ‘second’ Holy Land?
– It is true that the roots of Christianity are in Palestine but its ‘trunk’ is the land where St Paul the Apostle, St Luke the Evangelist and the great Fathers of the Church were born. In order to discover ‘the trunk’ of Christianity one should go on pilgrimage to Turkey and visit the places known from the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St Paul.
– However, I have the impression that the Church in Turkey is doing too little to encourage people to visit the holy places in Asia Minor…
– You are right. The problem is that our Church is poor and we have no appropriate means and staff to do that. I would say that the situation of our Church is worse than the situation of may Churches in the Third World Countries.
On the occasion of the Year of St Paul we sent our letter, which I mentioned in the beginning, to the Bishops’ Conferences in all European countries and we hope that we will remind the faithful of the significance of our land for Christianity.
– So I should express the wish that the Year of St Paul will contribute to Christians’ discovery of their Holy Land in Asia Minor.
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New hope to build a church in Tarsus
The wish of the Catholic bishops might be fulfilled and we will have a Catholic church and a pilgrims’ centre in Tarsus, the birthplace of St Paul. Bishop Luigi Padovese has expressed such hope recently. Although during the interview for ‘Niedziela’ he doubted in a positive solution of this matter: a church in Tarsus. Now he is more optimistic. It is most likely that the Turkish Church will receive a proposal of a piece of land to build a church and a pilgrims’ centre. Recently the Turkish bishops have addressed Primate Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asking for permission to build a pilgrims’ centre in Tarsus and for consent to use the Church of St Paul on a regular basis. The church is a museum now. If Mass is to be celebrated in the church, the Chairmanship of Religious Affairs must give its consent. The Church of St Paul (Tarsuslu Pavlos Kilisesi), which is a museum at present, dates back to the 12th century. After its renovation ten years ago, the sanctuary, which used as an army warehouse, is to be listed in the UNESCO World Heritage. When the discussions concerning the return of St Paul’s church to the Roman Catholic Church began, Mehmet A. Gürbüz, a consultant to the mayor of Tarsus, said that it was not necessary since ‘the church is accessible at any moment and services and prayers can be said there although there is no Catholic priest living in Tarsus.’