Update on Hagia Sophia

IMG_0750Earlier this year, I posted about my New Year’s Day visit to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.  Shortly after my trip, the terrorist bombing of some German tourists at Sultanahmet Square occurred, which was especially alarming to me because I stood at the precise location of the explosion on my way to visit Hagia Sophia a few days before.

In that post about the visit, I wrote:

Before entering the main floor of the Hagia Sophia, our tour guide briefly introduced its history to us, and I’ll never forget the way he did so: he told us that we were “very fortunate to be here today, when Hagia Sophia is still a museum. Turkey is changing,” he said, “and soon Hagia Sophia will be a mosque again. So it is fortunate you are here now, before that happens.” This fellow, with his black leather biker jacket and designed jeans, did not strike me as especially religious. Yet, he spoke with a sort of certainty that filled me with dread.

So, since that visit I’ve noticed a number of news articles concerning the Hagia Sophia. It seems that the warning about re-converting the Hagia to a mosque has essentially proven true.

This article (as well as others elsewhere) states that an imam began leading prayers at Hagia Sophia during Ramadan, and the Turkish press agency Anadolu reports that “…the National Office of Religious Affairs and the Mufti of Fathi in Constantinople jointly decided to appoint a permanent Imam for the Hagia Sophia” and to perform on a “daily basis” the five daily calls to prayer there. The linked article “With the appointment of the Imam, the transformation into a mosque is actually accomplished, independently of an explicit decision.”

Pray for Turkey, and the Christians who remain there.

Advertisements

China Pilgrimage Series: Our Lady of Graces in Bansishan

Recently, my oldest son and I returned from a pilgrimage and mission trip to the People’s Republic of China. I hope to share (in a series of posts in the coming weeks) some of what we saw and experienced.

Shanxi Province 

IMG_2067The capital city of Taiyuan is approximately 514 km west of the city of Beijing, with a population of 4 million (source: Wikipedia), and seat to the Archdiocese of Taiyuan and Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (source: UCANews).

Relative to other provinces in China, the treatment of the Catholic Church there is somewhat more relaxed. For example, there is very little distinction between that “above-ground” Patriotic Association Church and the otherwise “underground” Catholic Church in full communion with Rome.

One small clue that this is so can be found in the picture below, outside the Cathedral. A great many churches in China are obscured by a wall or have some barrier between them and the facing street. Here, however, the very short fence is used to stand posters about the teachings of Catholicism, and on the public sidewalk there were two tables, with stools and umbrellas, with an array of Catholic tracts for passers-by.

IMG_2069

Bansishan 

One of two official pilgrimage sites in the Archdiocese of Taiyuan is Our Lady of Grace Portiuncula Basilica on Bansishan (a mountain). (Source: UCANews). Approximately 100 km north of Taiyuan and 1760 meters above sea level, pilgrims access the Basilica by ascending a winding narrow dirt road that is punctuated by Stations of the Cross monuments carved in stone. (Source: UCANews).

IMG_2102

According to local tradition, Mary appeared at Bansishan in 1783 and opened the eyes of a blind child. A Franciscan bishop built a church on the site, and another Franciscan bishop later rebuilt it. (Source: UCANews).

IMG_2106While many pilgrims, particularly the local Chinese Catholics, make their 10 km ascent to the Basilica on foot, we made our way aboard a small bus that gasped and choked from overheat when we arrived. I’m glad that I didn’t know that at least once before a coach loaded with pilgrims has overturned on the rugged road, but miraculously, passengers received only minor injuries. (Source: UCANews).

Looking toward the mountain top with the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Looking toward the mountain top with the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Atop the mountain sits the Basilica. Thousands of pilgrims make their way there on August 2 each year to receive the “Portiuncula Indulgence”. This year, for the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, the doors of the Basilica have been designated as one of nine holy doors within the Archdiocese. When they were first opened on January 13, “more than 10,000 Catholics, coming on foot or in long lines of vehicles braved the freezing weather of minus 16 degrees Celsius at the pilgrimage site.” (Source: Sunday Examiner).

While the government of the Shanxi Province treats the Church more diffidently than elsewhere in China, it’s not as though Bansishan hasn’t been through its share of upheavals. In 1966, it was demolished by the Red Guards. It was rebuilt beginning in 1988. (Source: sacredarchitecture.org). As recently as 2008, the local government has interfered with pilgrims making their way to the shrine. On May 24 of that year, “thousands of police” blocked the access road to stop the pilgrims from reaching the Basilica, who were forced to return home. “According to eyewitnesses, the police forces greatly outnumbered the pilgrims.” (Source: asianews).

IMG_2120Further up the mountain, which we hiked, is a rosary garden currently under construction, as well as a golden statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the crest. While atop the mountain, at the foot of the Sacred Heart statue, our pilgrimage group prayed the Chaplet of Divine Mercy before we wended our way back down the mountain for our return to Taiyuan.

IMG_2113

Hagia Sophia: “it is fortunate you are here now”

This past New Year’s Eve, I found myself stranded in Istanbul, Turkey. My final destination was Rome and Assisi, but an irresistibly cheap fare (that included what was supposed to be just a two-hour layover at Ataturk Airport) carried me hundreds of miles past the Apennine Peninsula to the threshold of Asia Minor, where a winter storm caused the cancellation of dozens of flights, including my connection.

Due to the weather, thousands of people were stranded at the airport. Islamic pilgrims making Hajj to Mecca assembled at gates for flights to Jeddah who appeared as stranded as I was (perhaps more so, given the limitations of their garb: flowing white linen robes and sandals, little protection from the inches of snow that continued accumulating outside).

Even the airline’s hotel desk in the main terminal was inaccessible. The line to the counter, five or six persons wide, trailed like an interminable serpent through the airport – slow and languid, like a reptile placed in the freezer. So I resolved to strike out on my own. I Kayaked my way to a reservation for the night at a nearby Courtyard by Marriott, and thanks to the hotel’s free shuttle service, easily made it there.

In place of the steeples and crosses across the skyline of any Western city, in Istanbul there are minarets and golden crescents. was the foreigner — not just in terms of language and color, but creed as well. Were I in Rome at that moment, I would have considered myself practically at home, compared to Istanbul.

IMG_0750

The snow continued to fall that night, and after dinner in the hotel restaurant, I returned to my room for sleep. I greeted the New Year in dormition. Sometime in the morning hours, the snowfall and clouds abandoned Turkish skies, giving way to a morning of crystal blue against fresh white.

I returned to the airport before breakfast, although my flight wasn’t scheduled to depart until the evening. I did so because I found out that the airline offered a free tour of Istanbul for delayed passengers, complete with tour guide, tour bus, breakfast and lunch. The tour would include a visit to Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom”.

IMG_0758

A wonder of the world, construction of this edifice began in 537 A.D., and was originally the patriarchal basilica of the Patriarch of Constantinople, making it almost a millennia more ancient than the current St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was also the world’s largest cathedral until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.

IMG_0768In 1453 the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople and took possession of the city. Sultan Mehmed II permitted his troops three days of unchecked terror over the city, including the Hagia Sophia. The seat of Byzantium, and the place where Holy Roman Emperors standing in the “center of the world” received their crowns, was pillaged and desecrated. Holy relics were secreted away from the Hagia Sophia lest they be desecrated also.

Christian refugees prayed the Liturgy of the Hours within the Hagia Sophia during the siege. The invading horde entered the basilica to find Christians — priests, women, children and the elderly — who had taken refuge there. Trapped within, women and girls were raped, and enslaved, violated or killed along with the rest.

Grafitti

Grafitti

Soon thereafter the Sultan ordered that the Hagia Sophia be converted to a mosque. Minarets and other Islamic elements were added to the structure and interior.

Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum. Our tour guide, a Muslim, maintained that in the centuries of the Hagia Sophia being in Islamic possession, nothing was ever intentionally damaged or destroyed. This is simply and patently false.

IMG_0773

Apart from the fact that Sultan Mehmed II permitted his soldiers to pilfer the entire city, including Hagia Sophia, in the years that followed, mosque workers indulged in removing stones from the mosaics on the walls, and oftentimes sold them to visitors. You can clearly see that anywhere that a mosaic is within reach, the stones from the mosaic have been removed. Only the parts of the images outside ordinary reach remain intact. Upper images (including the ones revealed by fallen plaster) are almost entirely whole.

IMG_0808In addition, there is the extensive use of plaster throughout the vaulting on the upper walls and in the dome of the structure, which covers a host of Christian images. Some claim that these precious works were covered with plaster to protect them from further damage. But there was the secondary benefit of putting them out of sight and hiding the historical reality of the building.

IMG_0811The building is in a perpetual state of crumble, so that plaster frequently falls off surfaces revealing beautiful Christian artwork and imagery underneath, creating problems for the Turkish authorities who must decide whether to permit such works to remain in view, or be covered again.

Turkey’s last century saw the formation of a secular government, efforts at Western-style democracy, and alliance with the United States. But that is slowly changing. Islamist political movements are growing in power. The hijab – once banned from schools and other public places like government buildings – is in resurgence.

IMG_0784

Before entering the main floor of the Hagia Sophia, our tour guide briefly introduced its history to us, and I’ll never forget the way he did so: he told us that we were “very fortunate to be here today, when Hagia Sophia is still a museum. Turkey is changing,” he said, “and soon Hagia Sophia will be a mosque again. So it is fortunate you are here now, before that happens.” This fellow, with his black leather biker jacket and designed jeans, did not strike me as especially religious. Yet, he spoke with a sort of certainty that filled me with dread.

IMG_0831Despite how resolute he was, I might have dismissed what he said, except that there are prominent leaders in Turkey who apparently share the same view. The conversion of Hagia Sophia is a movement that’s been growing for at least ten years. Most recently, in 2015 the Mufti of Ankara, apparently in retaliation for the acknowledgment by Pope Francis of the Armenian Genocide, stated that he believes the conversion into a mosque will be accelerated.

Once I made it inside, I cast my eyes upward to take in the magnificent main dome, surrounded by four six-winged angels. And then I moved to the second floor gallery in search of the best-preserved mosaics.

IMG_0797

I wanted, more than anything else, to see the famed Deësis mosaic: Christ on Judgment Day, flanked on his right by Our Lady, and St. John the Baptist on his left. All that remains of this treasure (after years of stones peeled off by miscreants) is the upper half of Jesus and St. John, and the head and shoulder of the Blessed Virgin.

I stood there, beholding the soft blue eyes and still vibrant lavender of Mary’s raiment, Jesus’ hand raised mid-action, His gaze suffused with Divine countenance, and – possibly best of all – John’s wild flowing locks blown in the wind of the Holy Spirit, and his noble head inclined toward God and Man.

IMG_0795

I choked up. I felt gratitude, to receive such a moment of blessing. I felt anger, indignant at the vandals who picked over such sacredness and the interlopers who besmirched it. I felt sadness at the manifested disunity and conflict of this fallen world, the usurpation of just dignity.

IMG_0786

But more than all else, I felt joy. The Hagia Sophia is a place that once contained Our Lord’s own Real Presence. Yet, today we can not now be seen visibly praying there. It is against the law. Yet, I was praying. I was in communion, and living proof that Christ is, was, and ever will be Sovereign of all. Come what may, whether here, or anywhere.

A Catholic Primer on Jubilees for the Upcoming Year of Mercy

Pope Francis has announced an “extraordinary” Jubilee which begins on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and which will be more commonly known as the “Year of Mercy”. During this special year, the Church will open its treasury to dispense Mercy, in the form of special devotions, pilgrimages, the opening of “holy doors”, and indulgences intended to bring us all closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.

But, what exactly is a “Jubilee” and what are its origins?

I. The Church’s practice of celebrating the Jubilee is inherited from the Ancient Hebrews

Announcement of the Jubilee at the Temple in Jerusalem (note the horns used)

Announcement of the Jubilee at the Temple in Jerusalem (note the horns used)

The Third Commandment of God is to remember the Sabbath Day (i.e., the seventh day of the week) and keep it holy. The Hebrews followed a seven-day week according to the account in Genesis, in which God rested on the seventh day of creation.

Springing from the practice of observing the Sabbath — seventh — day of the week, there were also “Sabbath Years” in Jewish custom, which took place every seventh year, when the fields were left fallow, and allowed to rest for the entire year.

Interior Panel of the First Century "Arch of Titus" in the Roman Forum (Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Dnalor 01). This panel depicts the spoils taken by the Romans following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, including the massive gold candelabra and the horns used to announce jubilees.

Interior Panel of the First Century “Arch of Titus” in the Roman Forum (Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Dnalor 01). This panel depicts the spoils taken by the Romans following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, including the massive gold candelabra and the horns used to announce jubilees.

Building upon that, according to Leviticus, the year that followed every seventh of Sabbath Years (i.e., the 50th year, after 7 times 7 years [49 years]) was the Jubilee Year. The etymology of Jubilee, of Hebrew origin, is “the year of the blowing of the ram’s horn”, announced to the people by the blowing of a ram’s horn from the Temple. In Ezekiel, the Jubilee is called the “Year of Release”, and it provided three main enactments for the people of God:

  • rest of the soil;
  • reversion of landed property to its original owner, who had been driven by poverty to sell it; and,
  • and the freeing of Israelites who had become slaves of their brethren.
Reproduction of a Seventeenth Century drawing of the Arch of Titus, showing the crossed horns in detail

Reproduction of a Seventeenth Century drawing of the Arch of Titus, showing the crossed horns in detail

Thus for the Israelites, to some extent commerce and temporal matters were also tied to the jubilee, because the amount of time to a “Year of Release” was the extent of what a new owner of land could expect when he purchased from the man with an ancient familial claim. Likewise, the slave who sold himself would be freed at the next jubilee.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

The aim of the jubilee, therefore, is to preserve unimpaired the essential character of the theocracy, to the end that there be no poor among the people of God (Deut. xv, 4). Hence God, who redeemed Israel from the bondage of Egypt to be his peculiar people, and allotted to them the promised land, will not suffer any one to usurp his title as Lord over those whom he owns as his own. It is the idea of grace for all the suffering children of man, bringing freedom to the captive and rest to the weary as well as to the earth, which made the year of jubilee the symbol of the Messianic year of grace (Isaiah 61:2), when all the conflicts in the universe shall be restored to their original harmony, and when not only we, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, but the whole creation, which groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now, shall be restored into the glorious liberty of the sons of God (comp. Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:21; Romans 8:18-23; Hebrews 4:9).

II. The First Christian Jubilee Most Likely Occurred in 1300

In A.D. 1300, Pope Boniface VIII declared a Jubilee Year, and it is commonly thought that it was a response to the pilgrims to Rome who came seeking great indulgences. Boniface published the Bull “Antiquorum fida relatio“, in which he declared “great remissions and indulgences for sins” obtained “by visiting the city of Rome and the venerable basilica of the Prince of the Apostles”. Boniface declared in the Bull “not only full and copious, but the most full, pardon of all their sins”, to those fulfilling certain conditions: true penitence and confession of sins, and visits to the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul in Rome.

III. There are “Ordinary” and “Extraordinary” Jubilee Years

In discussing the last “ordinary” Jubilee of A.D. 2000, the Vatican website has a document found here, which notes that a Jubilee is “ordinary” if it falls after a set period of years, and “extraordinary” when it is proclaimed from some outstanding event. The upcoming Year of Mercy would be considered an extraordinary jubilee.

Pope Pius IX oversaw several jubilees, including the 300th anniversary of the Council of Trent, the 1800th anniversary of the martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Holy Year of A.D. 1875.

Pope Pius IX oversaw several jubilees, including the 300th anniversary of the Council of Trent, the 1800th anniversary of the martyrdom of Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Holy Year of A.D. 1875.

Including A.D. 2000, there have been 26 “ordinary” Jubilees since the first in A.D. 1300.

“The custom of calling ‘extraordinary’ Jubilees began in the 16th century and they can vary in length from a few days to a year.” In the last (20th) century, there were two extraordinary jubilees:

  • A.D. 1933, proclaimed by Pope Pius XI to mark the 1900th anniversary of Redemption;
  • A.D. 1983, proclaimed by Pope St. John Paul II to mark the 1950th anniversary of Redemption.

Given the fact that both of the preceding extraordinary jubilees are tied to Redemption, it could be anticipated that the next extraordinary jubilee after this upcoming one might occur on A.D. 2033, for the 2000th anniversary.

IV. Jubilee Years are Characterized by Opening the Holy Doors

Each of the four major papal basilicas in Rome (St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Maria Maggiore) have a “holy door” that is sealed shut from the inside and only opened for jubilee years.

Opening the Holy Door

Opening the Holy Door

When Pope Boniface IX declared a extraordinary jubilee, he unsealed the Holy Door at St. John Lateran on Christmas Eve A.D. 1390. At that time, St. Peter’s Basilica was still the “old” basilica originally built by Emperor Constantine, and not the current one which was completed in A.D. 1626, and which features for its Holy Door the northernmost entrance to the basilica.

Since then, each jubilee has been characterized by the opening of the holy doors, a practice which has been modified in modern times so that each diocese’s cathedral may designate a “holy door” (as well as at other suitable pilgrimage sites within the diocese)  to be symbolically and ceremonially opened at the start of the jubilee year. This expansion of opening “holy doors” all over the world provides to pilgrims who cannot travel all the way to Rome the opportunity to take part more fully in the jubilee, and obtain the indulgences promised to them.

V. Conclusion

Since the original intent of jubilees for the ancient Hebrews involved making impossible “absolute poverty” by restoring individuals to their ancestral lands and doing away with slavery, it was a special time when the riches of mercy were poured out for the good of God’s people.

While it has less to do with the temporal concerns of those first jubilees, the upcoming “Year of Mercy” is nevertheless very much about doing away with spiritual poverty and slavery to sin, by restoring us to the full and rich life in Christ that is promised to us in Baptism. As the saying goes, “To Fast when the Church Feasts, is to Fast alone”, so we would do well to join in this important celebration however we are able.

———————-

References:

  1. Catholic Encyclopedia (maintained at NewAdvent.org), “Year of Jubilee (Hebrew)”, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08534a.htm.
  2. Catholic Encyclopedia (maintained at NewAdvent.org), “Holy Year of Jubilee”, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08531c.htm.
  3. Vatican Website, Documents on the A.D. 2000 Jubilee, http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/docs/documents/ju_documents_17-feb-1997_history_en.html.
  4. Wikipedia, “Holy door”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_door.