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Feast of St. Andrew in Istanbul

The Catholic Review - From Time to Time

To my great surprise, Thanksgiving Day saw me in the air en route to Turkey – and, to anticipate a question, there was no turkey on the menu during the flight that evening! The day before, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, was on the telephone from Rome. He had seen the Holy Father a few minutes before we spoke and now conveyed to me the wish of Pope John Paul II that I represent him in Istanbul on the Feast of St. Andrew, Patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the ancient See of Constantinople. So began my retracing of the steps of our own Lawrence Cardinal Shehan 33 years ago. At the close of the Second Vatican Council he took to the Phanar, headquarters of the Patriarchate, the decree of Pope Paul VI which struck "from the memory of the Church" the excommunication leveled by a papal legate against the ecumenical patriarch some 900 years earlier. In 1965, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras was ready to act in concert with the Pope and to revoke a like excommunication which had been issued by his predecessor against the papal envoy in 1054. My own mission continued the regular official contacts between the Churches of the East and West normally carried out on the Catholic side by the President of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, the Council’s President, was busy in Rome as a President Delegate of the Synod for Oceania and I went as a substitute for him. With me in the delegation were Bishop Pierre Duprey, Secretary of the Unity Council, and Father Johan Bonny, an able young staff member from Belgium. A fourth member of our group was at the Istanbul airport to welcome us, Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata, the Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey. We had met once before, when he came to the United States in 1987 as the secretary to Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, then Secretary of State, and we gathered in the residence of the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations for a meeting very helpful in opening up lines of communication with the world Jewish leadership in preparation for the Holy Father’s visit here later that year. Our work began next morning, Saturday, following our Catholic celebration of Mass at the Nunciature. Archbishop Celata reminded us that Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, had lived many years in that residence and he showed us the major improvements made in the building during the Roncalli days. By 9:30 a.m. we were at the Patriarchate, and soon were ushered into the office of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who received us very warmly and with a personal word of welcome for each of us. Our Catholic group then went to another, formal meeting room, where the Commission of the Holy Synod which considers relationships with our Church awaited us. Their senior member, Metropolitan Chrysostom of Ephesus, invited me to offer the opening prayer and then we sat together, as co-presidents of the joint working group, for discussions which lasted for about eight hours. A welcome break for luncheon with the Ecumenical Patriarch which interrupted these sessions for about an hour. The exchanges offered us the opportunity to report on the positive progress made in recent months in implementing the agreed statement between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches at Balamand, Lebanon in 1993. Joint committees of our two Churches in Romania and Ukraine are dealing with the sensitive issues which arose following the collapse of Communism and the return of religious freedom to Eastern and Central Europe. We spoke also of how our Churches are preparing for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000. The Orthodox were pleased to learn that Pope John Paul II has agreed to the Ecumenical Patriarch’s proposal to observe August 6 of that year, the Feast of the Transfiguration in both East and West, as a day of special prayer and reflection. Next day, the First Sunday of Advent, saw our delegation at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit for a Eucharist which was truly Catholic: four of the six Catholic bishops of Turkey were present, two of them concelebrating, while the Armenian and Chaldean archbishops assisted. The latter spoke at beginning of the Mass on behalf of the Chaldeans present, especially those who had left Iraq and were seeking permanent refuge in a developed country. His words were in Aramaic, the language closest to the ancient tongue spoken by Jesus, Mary and the early Church. As the Liturgy progressed, prayers in French, Italian and English prepared the way for the Eucharistic Prayer in Latin. The reading from the prophet Isaiah reminded us that "all nations shall stream toward…the mountain of the Lord’s house." In my homily I saw the prophecy fulfilled in that cathedral, where aisles were crowded and almost every nation had its representatives in the congregation. Then the Feast of St. Andrew, a cloudy Monday with a few drops of rain gently falling on us as we arrived at the Cathedral of St. George. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was the principal celebrant at a glorious concelebrated Divine Liturgy. His rich baritone voice carried out into the adjacent square from the brightly-lit church. Concelebrating with him were the members of the Holy Synod. We Catholics were witnesses, praying in the service for the day when full Eucharistic communion between our Churches would make it possible for us to receive the living Lord in the Eucharist at each other’s celebrations. At the end of the Liturgy the Ecumenical Patriarch returned to his throne and addressed in Greek a message to the Catholic delegation. Then I spoke in English, bringing the warm wishes of Pope John Paul II and mentioning the many ways in which our two Churches are now collaborating. At the conclusion, I descended from my special chair, placed opposite his throne, to meet him in the middle of the sanctuary. Then we exchanged the sign of peace and I presented to him the personal message of the Holy Father, which he had signed a few days earlier. Patriarch Bartholomew asked me to give the final blessing with him. We turned around slowly, blessing the laity, the clergy and the choir as the powerful singing resounded around us. As we left the cathedral I stopped to greet two Little Sisters of the Poor. Later I was told that ten or twelve of them staff an outstanding home for the aged at Istanbul. The Patriarch then hosted a festive dinner and afterwards in his office came an exchange of gifts. To him I presented an engraved silver tray, the gift from the Holy Father we had brought with us from Rome. For each member of our delegation he had a gift, for me a lovely vase from Anatolia, a part of Turkey noted for artistic crafts, and incense from a monastery on Mt Athos, Greece, for use at the Cathedral and the Basilica in Baltimore. We returned in the evening for the Ecumenical Patriarch’s reception, joining members of the Greek community, the diplomatic corps, the various Christian Churches and the local business leadership in greeting our host and his senior staff on their great feast day. It was an occasion for the Patriarch to speak out – and he did! Before television cameras and reporters, as well as his guests, he described the great work of service the Greek Orthodox Church offers all society, a service of teaching, of caring, of helping to heal the wounds of the human family, without seeking special privilege. He spoke in fact for all people of faith to all people of good will. Patriarch Bartholomew asserted also the key importance of religious freedom which the Church needs to be able to carry out her mission. By implication he addressed a burning concern of the Greek Orthodox Church, their hope to be able to reopen, after more than twenty years of closure, their seminary on the Turkish island of Halki. In March I visited the seminary where I saw its full library and empty classrooms, and learned how keenly the Orthodox feel the injustice done to them by the government so many years ago. Those present signaled with strong applause their approval of the Patriarch’s message. Whether it was reported in the Greek media I do not know. Our final morning in Istanbul saw us crossing the Golden Horn to visit the recently elected and enthroned Armenian Patriarch of Turkey, leader of the largest Christian Church in Turkey. As we came into his neighborhood, we saw a series of well-stocked stores, with signs in Russian above the doors and in the windows. Archbishop Celata explained that these served customers who crossed the Black Sea from Russia to buy large quantities of materials for resale in their homeland. Armenian Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan conversed with us in fluent English; he lived in Nashville, Tennessee, for several years while a deacon on the way to the priesthood. He too is faced with the challenge of a closed seminary and must send students of theology to other countries for a training which he supplements with time spent in Turkish rectories, learning the reality of pastoral life in a land where the culture presents many challenges. He spoke of the need for ongoing ecumenical cooperation, especially in the preservation and use of the ancient Christian church buildings. We departed Istanbul that afternoon with memories of intense meetings, glorious liturgies and the sense of people of faith facing so many challenges because of restrictions on their freedom, especially in the operation of schools. Early next morning in Rome I celebrated Mass for our five seminarians at the North American College. One of them, Father Robert Jaskot concelebrated, and Deacon Erik Arnold proclaimed the gospel. All were well and in good spirits, looking forward to Christmas and asking me to bring their greetings home. Then I walked down the Janiculan Hill to meet with Cardinal Cassidy before he left for the morning Synod session. After reviewing the news of our days in Istanbul, he discussed the visit he has agreed to make Baltimore in February, when he will participate in a national meeting of Catholic and Jewish specialists and educators in the interreligious field and address a meeting open to the public at St. Mary’s Seminary and University. Then back to the College to prepare for a day of travel, back to Baltimore and our Archdiocese, the first home of religious freedom in the English-speaking world.