Scratching the Surface of Turkey's Religious Heritage

Bishop Comments on Importance of Year of St. Paul

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By Antonio Gaspari

ANKARA, Turkey, FEB. 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Perhaps it's not immediately visible, but the Christian heritage of Turkey is accessible if one simply begins to scratch the surface, said the president of this country's episcopal conference.

Bishop Luigi Padovese, apostolic vicar of Anatolia, said this when talking to ZENIT about the program and objectives of the Year of St. Paul, which Benedict XVI called for June 28, 2008, to June 29, 2009.

The prelate said the organization of pilgrimages and trips to the places touched by St. Paul is marked above all by its religious goals.

"The purpose is to awaken in the Christians of Turkey and the world the consciousness of their own identity," he said.

To reach this goal, a host of initiatives ranging from a new Turkish translation of the Pauline letters, to an October pilgrimage for the nation's minority-Catholic population, to a short Pauline catechism, are in the works.

Bishop Padovese said one of the main goals is helping Christians to understand what it means to be Christian.

St. Paul, he said, "gave a universal dimension to the Christian reality and showed that Christianity is a novelty more than a continuity, because, as Tertullian said, 'one is not born a Christian, but becomes one,' and Paul helps us to understand where we are and who we are. Paul recalls the Christian identity.

"It is not just about the continuity with the Jewish religion -- that relationship exists and one has to recognize it, but the Incarnation is an enormous qualitative jump and the 'scandal of the cross and Resurrection' goes beyond all imagination."

A place and time

Bishop Padovese said the Pauline jubilee "is an opportunity to make known to the world's Christians the importance of the Apostle Paul," with special reference to his mission in Turkey.

"In those times," recalled the apostolic vicar, "this region was more flourishing and rich, a meeting point for culture, peoples and religions which enabled the inculturation and expansion of Christianity."

The jubilee is also offering an opportunity to reach out to religious and civil leaders. A warming of relations with non-Catholic Christians and with Turkish authorities are hoped-for effects of the Pauline year.

Bishop Padovese explained that Orthodox leaders, including Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, have been involved in meetings to plan the jubilee.

And, he said, the Turkish authorities have shown themselves to be very interested in the Pauline year "although they have not responded to the petition to build a church in Tarsus dedicated to St. Paul."

Seeking Christ

From the archeological and historical point of view, Bishop Padovese lamented that with the passing of years "Christianity has been very much erased." But, he said, if the surface is scratched, "one can still find a great deal of the Christian presence."

"In the large cities," he said, "many churches have been lost and many others transformed into mosques." In Tarsus, for example, "there was a beautiful church built as a basilica that is currently a mosque."

"But on the perimeter, signs of Christianity are still visible," the prelate affirmed. In Antioch of Pisidia, for example, a Church dedicated to St. Paul has been found, where the apostle pronounced the speech about the mission."

"In fact," Bishop Padovese stated, "in Turkey, St. Paul preferentially performed his apostolate. The studies support that of the 10,000 miles that Paul traveled, a good part of them were in Turkey. And it is enough to take the Acts of the Apostles to realize up to what point Paul lived and traveled the lands of modern-day Turkey."

Need for unity

The apostolic vicar will pre-announce the opening of the jubilee in a June 21 event in Tarsus, a week before the Pauline year officially begins. Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, leaders of the Orthodox Churches, and civil authorities from Ankara will participate.

The bishops' conference also published a pastoral letter for the jubilee. In it, they recall the importance of ecumenical relations.

"Before being Catholic, Orthodox, Syrians, Armenians, Chaldeans or Protestants, we are Christians. Our duty to be witnesses is founded on this," the letter stated. "We cannot let our differences generate distrust and damage the unity of the faith; we cannot permit non-Christian to be estranged from Christ because of our divisions."