“This is the true face of the Universal Church that we see here – one of different languages and peoples.”By Sébastien de Courtois, ACN International – Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
A crowd of Catholics has been waiting for fifteen hours for Pope Francis on the square in front of the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit. “We are going to sing for the Pope, for the Christians and for peace in the Middle East,” says Maria, a young Chaldean Catholic who is singing in the choir. There are about 20 young girls like her, from various different backgrounds, who are due to take part in this exceptional liturgy. The cathedral is full. “We can barely fit in more than 1200 people… We would love to have welcomed far more than that, but it is not possible,” says Monsignor Louis Pelâtre, the Catholic Bishop of Istanbul.
Outside, on the pavement, the Turkish TV cameras are filming the arrival of the Holy Father. The interior courtyard is packed. As soon as he arrives, cries of “Viva el papa!” ring out from the crowd. There is a small delegation from Colombia, Argentina and the Philippines. The Pope goes up to each one of them as soon as he can, to shake their hands and smile at people. A man approaches him with a cage containing some doves and offers them to Francis, who takes them and immediately lets them fly loose in the grey sky of Istanbul, as a sign of peace.
A historic event
Inside the church the people are standing on their benches to welcome him. On the upper balcony the journalists of the entire world are also present, among them many Italians who have travelled on the Holy Father’s airplanes. The Turkish security services outside, and the Vatican security staff inside, are on high alert. There must not be any mistakes now. The Mass begins. The Pope is surrounded by several prelates of the Eastern Church, among them the Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignace Younan, who will co-celebrate with him. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is also present, as are the representatives of the Armenian Churches both Gregorian and Catholic, the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yusuf Çetin and the vicar of the Chaldeans of Turkey, François Yakan.
More than 50 priests, representing the dioceses of Turkey and elsewhere, are also present. The Pope takes a moment for each one. “We are very happy to see him like this. He brings us joy and comfort,” says a Levantine woman from Izmir, the ancient city of Smyrna, which is today a large city on the Aegean. Turkish Catholics intone the first hymns, in Turkish. This is followed by singing and words from the choir of the cathedral in French, Spanish, English and, of course, Italian. “I arrived here yesterday from Mardin to be part of this historic moment,” says one young woman, Febronia. “ We know that it is a historic moment. Above all in the present context of the violence being committed against the Christians of the Middle East.”
In fact, several delegations of refugees from Syria and Iraq have been welcomed by the Holy Father. He is profoundly concerned with the question of the displaced, and about the future of the Christians in the Middle East. On several occasions during the Mass prayers are offered for this intention, above all during his homily.
A renewal of the promise of unity
If, in exceptional circumstances such as these, Latin once again becomes the common language of the Church, nonetheless Armenian, Arabic and Syriac chants are also sung. At the moment of Communion an African choir starts to sing – words of deep emotion in honour of Jesus: Jesus Christ, you are the bread, the bread of life of Christians, to be received in communion today...
For a couple of hours politics are put aside and perhaps even forgotten. Christians of every background have come together as a family “to be happy ,” as one Turkish man puts it, a man of 50 and a convert to Christianity. “This is the true face of the Universal Church that we see here, one of different languages and people.” He does not manage to finish his words, so deeply is he moved.
The moment comes for the final blessing; the people stand, the flashlights crackle. Everybody gets out his mobile phone in order to immortalize this extraordinary moment of Grace. Once again, indefatigable, the Pope takes the time to greet the people during the recessional. He smiles, shakes hands whenever he can and moves slowly towards the exit…
Tomorrow morning he will take part in the Orthodox Liturgy for the feast of Saint Andrew in the Greek Orthodox church of the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Since this church is still smaller, there will be some disappointed people. But this meeting between the two representatives of Sister Churches will be a renewal of the promise of unity.