Iskenderun, Turkey, Jul 17, 2021 / 03:00 am (CNA).
No doubt most priests feel a sense of trepidation when they are asked to become bishops. But Fr. Paolo Bizzeti had more reason than most.
In 2015, Pope Francis appointed the Italian Jesuit as Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia in Turkey. The post had remained vacant for five years after the death of Bishop Luigi Padovese.
Padovese, an Italian Capuchin, was murdered by his driver.
In an email interview with CNA, Bizzeti said that when he was called to succeed the bishop, he did not need to think too hard about his response.
“But suddenly Pope Francis, in 2015, asked me for my willingness to come to the Vicariate of Anatolia which had been without a bishop for five years because Msgr. Padovese was assassinated on June 3, 2010,” he recalled.
“It was urgent that there was finally a bishop and I, like every Jesuit Father, have always been available to go where the pope asked.”
Why did the pope choose Bizzeti, who up to that point had spent most of his priestly life in Italy?
“In 1978, I arrived in Turkey with some university friends and I fell in love with the history and geography of this country, so close and so different from Italy and Europe,” he explained.
“After two years, I began to visit the numerous biblical sites located in Turkey. I visited very interesting archeological ruins and small Christian communities that were there continuously from the first century until today.”
Bizzeti, who co-authored a guide to Turkey’s Christian history in 1990, suggested that the country played an even more important role in the formation of the early Church than Jerusalem.
“Christianity as we know it was born in Antioch (today Antakya) much more than in Jerusalem,” he said.
“The three great strands of Christianity were born in Antioch: the Syriac Church, the Orthodox/Byzantine Church, and the Catholic Church, because the great missions to bring the Gospel were born with Barnabas and Paul, starting from Antioch to the West.”
He continued: “The first seven Ecumenical Councils were celebrated in the territory of Turkey which have forever marked the face of Christianity. Every year, therefore, I have brought groups of young people to know these biblical places, the roots of Christianity, and the fascinating geography of this country.”
But Bizzeti was not simply a scholar of Turkey’s Christian past. He was also captivated by the country’s encounter with modernity.
“Furthermore,” he said, “Turkey was becoming an industrial country from an agricultural country and therefore it was very interesting for me to see the social, political, economic process of this country so unique because it is located at the crossroads of the East with the West, and placed between the Russian countries, the Arab and Central Asian countries.”
“Unfortunately, I have also seen many negative things such as great pollution, wild overbuilding, and many negative political events. However, every year I returned to Turkey and followed the evolution of this country, always updated on the main news.”
Bizzeti was born in Florence, Italy, in 1947. After joining the Society of Jesus, he was ordained a priest in 1975. He engaged in youth ministry in the historic northern university city of Bologna for many years, before returning to a post in his home city. He then spent 12 years as director of the Villa San Giuseppe, a spirituality center in Bologna.
For 20 years, he coordinated pastoral work for vocations for Italy’s Jesuits. In 2007, he founded the nonprofit organization Friends of the Middle East.
He was well prepared, then, when he received his daunting episcopal appointment in Turkey. He was ordained a bishop in the Basilica of St. Justina in Padua, northern Italy, and then left his homeland for İskenderun, a coastal city in southern Turkey.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia, formed in 1990, serves Latin Rite Catholics in the eastern half of Turkey at eight different locations.
According to some estimates, there are just 35,000 Catholics in the country, comprising 0.05% of Turkey’s 82 million population.
While the vast majority of citizens are Muslim, there is considerable diversity within Turkish Islam. Most of Turkey’s Muslims are Sunni, but a considerable minority are adherents of Alevism, a distinctive subgroup often classified as a branch of Shia Islam.
“Catholics are a very small minority, but now we have many Christian refugees from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Africa. They are now more numerous than local Christians,” Bizzeti said.
“Unfortunately they are without pastors, without nuns, without catechists and they do not have the possibility to open a chapel, a cultural center, a school, a sports center of Christian inspiration.”
“Their condition is very hard and they cannot leave the city where they have been sent without a police permit, which is often not given. They are far from the churches and therefore do not have Mass even on Christmas, Easter, etc.”
“A very hard condition also because the Christian West has unfortunately closed all its doors and very few families manage to emigrate to a country where there is real religious freedom and Christian churches.”
“The Muslim population is good and respect us, but does not know Christianity and is often full of prejudices towards Christians.”
The bishop believes that, despite being a tiny minority, Christians are a vital presence in Turkey, as well as in nearby Middle Eastern countries.
“Turkey is very important for Christianity because our roots are here and because the Christian traditions of the churches in Turkey are very rich, varied, and have a very beautiful theological heritage,” he said.
“Furthermore, Christians in the Middle East have always been important in recent centuries precisely to avoid a growth of Muslim religious fundamentalism and for their contribution to a civil society attentive to human rights. Christian culture is necessary for the whole Middle East, there is no doubt.”
He continued: “A Middle East without the presence of Christians would be poorer and more exposed to fundamentalist tendencies. Furthermore, Christians and Muslims have lived together in the Ottoman Empire for centuries and those who claim that coexistence is impossible are mistaken.”
“Turkey plays an important role in the history of salvation because God has always been faithful to the places he has chosen as the terrain in which to make the history of salvation grow. It is the Western Christians of today who seem to have forgotten this.”
In the past year, Bizzeti has led his flock through the coronavirus crisis, which has hit the Turkish economy hard.
The country is normally a popular tourist destination. But Turkey’s tourism ministry reported that visitors fell by 69% in 2020, with revenues dropping from $34.5 billion in 2019 to around $12 billion.
The country has recorded more than five million COVID-19 cases and over 50,000 deaths as of July 16, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
“Christians suffered like all other citizens and together with them. The mosques were closed as well as the churches,” Bizzeti said.
“It is the Christian refugees who have suffered the most both for economic reasons and for isolation and for not being able to go to the formative and liturgical moments that were held in other cities.”
And yet, despite all the difficulties of being a Christian in Turkey amid a global pandemic, Bizzeti stressed that he saw signs of hope.
“I rejoiced and rejoice very much to see that Jesus Christ continues to call people of all kinds to the Christian faith: agnostics, atheists, Muslims, Alevis, etc., to form even today a small people who give witness to the Gospel and to the person of him, the only Savior of the world,” he said.
“We have catechumens in all our parishes. We have people who come from Iran and Afghanistan in search of Christ because they met him in a dream or through a website, a book, a person.”
“It is wonderful to see how the risen Jesus continues to be the protagonist of evangelization, through his Holy Spirit and in the most unthinkable ways.”
“The thing that pains me most is that there are few pastoral workers for these people whom Christ calls. There seems to be little willingness in the West to come to this country to guard and train God’s people.”