.- Pope Benedict XVI will extend his planned trip to Turkey, from three days to four, in order to celebrate Mass with Turkish Catholics and pay a visit to Hagia Sophia, the former seat of the Church of Constantinople, which was transformed into a mosque and is now a Turkish Museum, Italian news service APCom has reported today.
Bishop Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia Turkey, told APCom that, "The Pope has decided to remain an extra day, the first of December, to meet the Catholics of Turkey. It was becoming clear that the time was a little tight and there was not an encounter with the Catholics of the county in the program.”
The trip, which was formally announced on February 9th, had begun to take shape when it was realized that the Pope would be unable to accomplish everything he wanted in three short days.
The unofficial schedule for the initial part of the Holy Father’s trip includes a series of necessary ceremonial appointments on the 28th. The Pope, who in addition to his role as leader of the Catholic Church is also head of a sovereign state, will most likely conduct separate meetings with both Turkish President Ahment Necdet Sezer and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to APCom the meetings will take place separate from the Pope’s official arrival, as Turkish protocol does not allow the Turkish President to meet incoming heads of state at the airport. Instead, upon entering the country the Pontiff will most likely be greeted by the governor of the region and the Mayor of Ankara.
On the morning of the 29th, Pope Benedict is expected to travel to Ephesus, in Smyrna, where he will say Mass at the House of the Virgin Mary and meet with the Capuchin Friars whose monastery surrounds the shrine.
The Pontiff is also widely expected to spend time with Bartholomew I, the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, with whom he will almost certainly celebrate the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle on November 30th.
St. Andrew was the brother of Peter and is considered the patron of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Patriarch Bartholomew, who traditionally sends a representative to celebrate the feast of St. Peter in Rome, invited Pope Benedict to Turkey immediately following the Pope’s election in 2005. Pope Benedict has made increased dialogue between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Churches one of the priorities of his Pontificate and signaled his desire to accept the inviation. However, the Turkish government, upset that the Patriarch invited the Pope to Turkey with out their approval and probably still stinging from comments Benedict had made in opposition to the country’s entry into the European Union, refused to issue an invitation in time for the Pope to visit last year.
Now that the Pope is able to make his visit, he clearly wants to have an effect, not only on ecumenical relations but also with his flock. With the reported extra day, the Pope will have time to celebrate Mass with the Catholics of Turkey, who are suffering increased instances of persecution from some radical sects in the primarily Muslim country. Bishop Padovese said that all Turkish Catholics as well as all officials and bishops of the Turkish Bishops Conference will be invited to attend.
On the same day, APCom reports, the Holy Father will visit what was once one of the greatest architectural and artistic structures of the universal Church. Hagia Sophia was built by the emperor Justinian I in 537, upon the ruins of another church built by Constantine the Great. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the magnificent structure was converted to a mosque. It remained a mosque until 1935 when the Turkish government converted it into a museum.