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Serving in the Spirit of Francis

by Charles E. Adelsen

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Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, only the one of Smyrna survives today. Now called Izmir, it has always demanded something special of its Christians, and especially of its leaders. In the second half of the twentieth century, new leadership was needed to continue the dynamic work of its first shepherds and to maintain a Christian presence in a predominantly Muslim country. The spirit of Vatican II would guide this new leader.

John Henry Boccella was called to this special mission by Pope Paul VI in June of 1968. From the first he had answered his vocation with the spirit of Francis of Assisi, entering the Franciscan Third Order Regular in 1941. His tireless ministry led to an appointment as Minister General of the Third Order in 1947.

Boccella again relied on the counsel of Francis as he approached his assignment in Turkey. The gentle saint had written in Regola non ballata of 1221 that those missionaries who go among Muslims “can establish spiritual contact with them” through humble service for the love of God. By confessing and bearing witness to their Christianity, these missionaries will create not disputes but brotherhood. The new archbishop also began his work in light of the Second Vatican Council's encouragement to collaborate with Muslims to “defend and promote together social justice, moral values, peace, and liberty.”

Directed by the humility and compassion called for by his Christian heritage, the new archbishop of Izmir soon earned the Turks’ respect. In turn he received permission to rebuild earthquake-damaged churches and to keep them in shape. The foundation stones of the early Church throughout Turkey were soon set upright again. His zeal made a livable home of what might have become the bare ruins of the Church here.

This Christian churchman not only reconstructed the precious relics of his faith but also built bridges that reached from his own communicants to all people within his episcopacy. The Muslims of his archdiocese in Turkey, where 98% of the people follow the path of Islam, enjoyed the same respect and benevolence which he showed his flock of Christians. The archbishop donated most of his inheritance – almost a million Turkish liras – to Izmir’s municipal institution for the old and needy so it could build a modern shelter for the care of the Yoksullar, the “destitute ones.” In the spirit of Francis his concern for these Muslim brethren brought some of them to medical specialists in Europe as well as assisting them on their native soil.

Boccella respected the different ways people worship God and celebrate their holy days. On Muslim feast days, he would buy sheep after the Muslim custom and give them to the director of the House of the Destitute to prepare for its residents, the better to help them rejoice on their holidays. At Christmas, celebrated among the Muslim Turks as Noel Bayram, the birthday of their prophet Isa (Jesus), and on the New Year too, the archbishop would come bearing gifts for his Muslim friends: as many as ten turkeys at a time, as well as box after box of bananas, tangerines, and apples. How the poor and the old of Izmir looked forward to the holiday visits of this ItaloAmerican Christian in their midst!

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Tags: Unity Turkey Christian-Muslim relations Islam