Ancient faith faces an uncertain future
Published November 26, 2006
Imagine the Vatican surrounded in a fiercely secular yet very Muslim Italy.
The Christian community there has dwindled to only a few thousand after decades of ethnic cleansing. Much of the church's property has been seized. The government has closed the only seminary and refuses to reopen it.
A law has been passed: Any future Roman Catholic pope must be born on Italian soil, even though there is no seminary to train the young priests, even as the Christian community shrinks to a handful. A cold shadow falls on the Western church.
I asked you to imagine this because it's going on, right now, but not in Rome.
It is happening in Istanbul, where Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Church, is facing extreme pressure by the Turkish government.
This week, Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Turkey and pray with Bartholomew, and witness the liturgy in the Church of St. George.
The focus will be on the pope relying on the patriarch to help make inroads with Muslims, after comments the pope made this year about violence and Islam.
But I hope his visit will also draw attention to the desperate plight of the Orthodox Church, which has been largely ignored. There are an estimated 250,000 Orthodox Christians in the Chicago area, enough, you might think, for attention to be paid, especially now.
The pope will hear the liturgy as it was sung more than a thousand years ago, when there was only one church, before the split into East and West.
"They will exchange the kiss of peace, and they will bless the people, and they will recite together the `Our Father' in Greek, the original [scriptural] language," said Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, who will lead the American delegation.
"Then the two of them will go out to the elevated balcony, if you remember it, and bless the people who will be gathered in the courtyard," the archbishop told me.
I do remember. I was there, at St. George, at the patriarchate this past summer, watching the baptism of my nephew. We had the honor of visiting with Bartholomew, who said with a smile that he reads the Chicago Tribune online.
Obviously, I have strong, personal and religious feelings about this and can't pretend otherwise, yet I mean no disrespect to Turkey or to Islam.
The streets in that quarter of Istanbul are narrow. The bus stops at the bottom of the hill. You walk past a few shops, on up, and eventually, through the gates of the compound.
Once there, you begin to realize how central the patriarchate has been to Christianity, dating from about A.D. 300, when the Gospels of the New Testament were being selected, and later, when the Nicene Creed, a statement of faith recited by Catholics, Orthodox and other Christians, was created before the schism.
That the media ignores the patriarch's plight is astounding and hurtful to me. As is the realization that all that history could be gone if things don't change in Istanbul, in what was once called Constantinople, the heart of the Byzantine Empire.
At the patriarchate, one of the exterior doors is never opened. It has remained closed since 1821, when Greece fought for its independence from the Ottoman sultans, and the patriarch then was dragged out and hanged from that very doorway.
Today, Turkey is a fascinating, wonderful place, worthy of American tourism, worthy of American respect.
The people are friendly and hospitable, and the history is astounding. The Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, the ancient covered market, still thriving. That it has remained a nation is testament to the intense will of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern secular Turkish state, which now must deal with growing Islamic fundamentalism.
All of this is important for Americans to grasp, as the West realizes, finally, that ignoring Islam is impossible.
For me, it was especially important to visit Hagia Sophia, literally, the Church of Divine Wisdom, the ancient domed structure that was turned into a mosque when the Turks took Constantinople in 1453.
It is an immense structure, larger even than its copy, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and is nearly 1,500 years old.
There, I thought of the worshipers fearfully singing the liturgy as the city walls were breached, as the slaughter began, as a Christian empire that had stood for more than 1,000 years perished.
Most icons were destroyed, but you can see the Virgin Mary on the wall near what had been the altar. A sign prohibits religious observance, but the guards don't stop you from praying.
Pope Benedict is also scheduled to visit Hagia Sophia, now tersely referred to as a museum.
As he visits there, the news images may be sent around the world to remind us of what was, and how what little is left is slipping away.