Reaching Out: The Popes in Turkey

by Charles E. Adelsen

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Anatolia has always been a kind of second Holy Land, reaching from Noah’s mountain of Ararat in the East to the warm water shores of the Mediterranean and the Aegean. It is a land of treasured memories: Paul growing up in Tarsus; the Virgin Mary, as tradition tells us, living out the last years of her life in the quiet hills of Ephesus; the birth and flourishing of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.

It was from Anatolia, where for centuries East and West met and mingled, that earliest Christianity, its Semitic nature influenced by the Hellenism of the East, passed outwards to a still pagan Europe. Much later, as old Rome fell increasingly under the darkness of barbarian night, the Christian flame was rekindled and burned again at Constantine’s city, Constantinople, that was called the Second Rome.

And reminding us that papal visits to the East are no innovation of our own generation, for as long as Christian emperors sat upon the throne of Byzantium there came a procession of Popes from Rome to Constantinople, traveling back to the motherland of our Faith, the East. They came, those long ago Popes, remembering an even earlier tradition, that of the first Pope, Peter, who tarried at Asian Antioch in Syria, on the River Orontes, where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” A church built in a cave in the cliffs overlooking the town is still called the Grotto Church of St. Peter.

After Peter, two Popes who would later become saints journeyed to Constantinople: John I in 525, and Agapetus I a decade later. They took the long and dangerous road from Rome to help steer the Church through rough waters at a time when Christians still struggled to settle doctrinal matters that we have taken for granted for centuries.

One of the longest sojourns of any pontiff at Constantinople was that of Pope Vigilius. Religious and political disputes kept him in the city from 546 until 555, under the sometimes angry gaze of the Emperor Justinian. Once, when Justinian ordered Vigilius’ arrest, the Pope fled the emperor’s wrath and sought sanctuary in a church. When the imperial soldiers came to seize him, he held fast to the columns of the altar. Like Samson in the temple, Vigilius brought the pillars down on the heads of the emperor’s men in what Constantinopolitans called an act of divine intercession.

Not for 155 years did another Pope come to Constantinople. Then after the arrival of Pope Constantine I in 710, more than a thousand years would pass before an envoy from Rome would come to the city of Constantine. Meanwhile, Europe would be darkened by barbarian invasions, schism in 1054 would tear the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom apart, and in 1453, what was left of an enfeebled Constantinople would fall to the Ottoman Conquest.

In the half a thousand years that went by after the fall of Constantinople, men of different faiths looked at each other with fear or hatred. The East perennially reproached the West for the excesses of the Fourth Crusade, Europe ignored the woes of the East, and Muslims regarded all Christians with the kind of well-founded suspicion taught them by the incursions of the crusaders. What was needed was the healing touch of a man of God. But no Pope came to the East.

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