By Barb Arland-Fye
After making pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 1993 and 1995, Msgr. Marvin Mottet thought the next best thing would be to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul.
But he had to wait patiently. Following health challenges and other obstacles, the retired priest of the Davenport Diocese was finally able to make a 10-day pilgrimage to Turkey last month and visit the sites where early Christianity took root. Accompanying him were 10 people from the Davenport Diocese and more than 30 people from elsewhere.
The pilgrims covered more than 2,000 miles and visited the tomb of St. John, said to be the beloved disciple of Jesus. It was John whom the dying Jesus asked to take care of his mother. The group also celebrated Mass at the site thought to be the final home of the Blessed Mother and prayed at each of the sites of the seven Christian communities addressed in the Book of Revelations. No church buildings exist at these sites because the early Christians worshipped together in their homes, some of which were in caves and mountains to avoid persecution. “There’s an important lesson here; the Church is the people,” Msgr. Mottet noted.
While there is little physical evidence of the Church prior to the fourth century, Turkey has become known as “the other Holy Land” because of all that happened there. Much of the early Church developed along the Mediterranean; the whole area was Christian until the seventh century, he added.
A diverse population inhabited Turkey in the early years of the Church: Roman and Greek Christians, Hebrews, and pagans.
“To see what the apostles and the early Christians were facing when they walked into these cities: the economic power, the military power and the influence of paganism was amazing. They walked in on foot and all they had was the power of the Holy Spirit,” Msgr. Mottet observed. “I’ll never read the Acts of the Apostles or Revelations the same way again. Those books will have a much deeper meaning for me now.”
He noted that Scripture scholars say John’s Gospel and his epistle are products of the Christian community John created in Turkey, centered in Ephesus.
Father Stephen Page, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Fairfield, majored in the classics as an undergraduate and was eager to participate in the pilgrimage. “This is one of the big areas of history we studied. Here’s the field trip 30 years later,” he said.
While Turkey is a lovely place, from a biblical perspective “there wasn’t much to see other than this is where Paul went out and evangelized — and the seven cities that the Book of Revelation is addressed to are all located in present-day Turkey.”
Nonetheless, “this is all the beginnings of the early Church, the post-Apostolic times of the Church,” Fr. Page said. “There were no churches because the Church was community.”
Sister Elizabeth Thoman of the Davenport-based Congregation of the Humility of Mary (CHM) was particularly moved by the liturgies held at “Mary’s Church” among the caves of Cappadocia and the House of Mother Mary near Ephesus.
“The simplicity of her house is the same simplicity that the CHMs strive to live in the 21st century,” Sr. Thoman said.
Evalee Mickey, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, said the pilgrimage impacted her when she got home and read the letters to the early churches in the Acts of the Apostles. “I can more readily connect myself with those early Christians after being in the area,” she said.
Today, Turkey is a secular state whose inhabitants are mostly Muslims. With few exceptions, though, all faiths are respected and live in harmony, Sr. Thoman said.
“Turkey is 98 percent Muslim,” added Msgr. Mottet. “They have been successful over the centuries in their evangelization efforts. I wonder, ‘What is God trying to tell us about this?’”