Pope Francis took everybody by surprise at the end of the solemn Orthodox prayer service in the church of St George in the Fanar, Istanbul, on the evening of November 29, by asking the ecumenical patriarch of the 300 million member Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, “to pray for me and for the Church of Rome.”
He then bowed down his head for the blessing, and rested his head on the chest of the Patriarch, who then kissed it. These simple but touching gestures of friendship and love convey much more than words can how far down the journey to unity the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have travelled over the past fifty years, ever since Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras first embraced in Jerusalem in January 1964 and later lifted the mutual excommunications each side had imposed on the other in 1054.
The request to the Patriarch for prayers was the second surprise of the day from this tireless, joyful Argentine pope who is ever seeking news ways to foster friendship between religious leaders, and to overcome past tensions, divisions and misunderstandings between the Christian Churches and between Christians and Muslims.
The first surprise came earlier that day in the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (‘the Blue Mosque’) when the Pope spent some minutes in ‘silent adoration’, as I have reported in an earlier dispatch.
In actual fact Pope Francis’s first day in Istanbul, his second in Turkey, could best be characterized as ‘a day of prayer’.
After praying in the mosque in the morning, later that day Francis celebrated mass in the church of the Holy Spirit for the tiny Catholic community in Istanbul which is divided in four rites: Latin, Syriac, Chaldean and Aramaic. They went ecstatic with joy when he arrived and chanted ‘Viva il Papa!”, and uttered the local sound of joy and happiness. Emotions ran high as he entered the church and reached out to many people as he moved up the central aisle.
These small communities have lived through difficult times in the last century and today are on the defensive and rather closed in on themselves, concerned to preserve their ancient traditions, fearful of reaching out. Indeed, mutual cooperation is not one of their hallmarks.
It was for this reason that Pope Francis devoted his entire homily to the Holy Spirit, who, he said, ‘impels us’ to break ‘the cycle of our self-centeredness’ and to ‘move beyond ourselves and go out to encounter others and help them’, and ‘to love someone who doesn’t love us in return’. He reminded them that ‘the temptation is always to resist the Holy Spirit because he takes us out of our comfort zone and unsettles us; he makes us get up and drives the Church forward’. He encouraged them to listen to, and obey the Spirit, and told them, “We Christians become true missionary disciples, able to challenge consciences, when we throw off our defensiveness and allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit”. He concluded by telling them that the Church that flows from Pentecost “is given the fire of the Holy Spirit” the inflames the heart and gives it “the ability to serve in love, a language that everyone is able to understand’.
This was the Pope’s only public mass during his three day visit in this almost entirely Muslim land. His homily was meant as a message of encouragement to the country’s 53,000 Catholics, urging them not to be afraid but to listen to the Holy Spirit and do whatever he tells them.
There are in fact an estimated 150,000 Christians in Turkey, and his words would have reached them too because the leaders of all the other Christian communities – Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Pentecostals – were present at the Eucharistic celebration, as were Syro-Orthodox, Chaldean and Armenian Church leaders and Patriarch Bartholomew.
At the end of mass, the vicar-apostolic of the Latin Church, Mgr. Louis Pelatre, thanked Pope Francis for coming to this community of believers which, he said, is ‘one of the peripheries of the Church’ today. “Your presence comforts us”, he stated with emotion. He told the Pope that his visit also encouraged them to continue their mission in Istanbul ‘in the service of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue’. He said they would do so under the protection of Saint John XXIII who used to celebrate mass on all the major Christian festivals in this same church when he was apostolic delegate in Turkey between 1935 and 1944, and was greatly loved here.
After mass in the Catholic cathedral of the Holy Spirit which dates back to 1846, Pope Francis drove to the Fanar, the headquarters of the ecumenical patriarchate of the 300 million member Orthodox Church, and there he was welcomed by his friend, Patriarch Bartholomew, ‘the first among equals’ in the leadership of the Orthodox world.
Together they participated in the beautifully rich Orthodox prayer service in the church of St George that dates back to 1720, Afterwards the retired to the Patriarch’s resident in the Fanar where they had a twenty-minute private conversation before exchanging gifts. They will meet again tomorrow morning, Sunday, November 30, for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on the feast of Saint Andrew, the brother of Saint Peter. It is the culminating moment of the papal visit, and the paramount reason why Francis came to Turkey at this time of year.