Global Perspective

December 7, 2005Vol. 3, No. 22

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Global Perspective
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The feast of the Immaculate Conception at Mary's house

By Mavi Zambak

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IZMIR, Turkey -- Not many pilgrims will be clambering up the slopes of Bulbul Dag (hill of the nightingale) where the "House of the Blessed Virgin Mary" is found. It could be because now summer is over, winter has crept in and groups of foreign tourists have melted away; or it may be because Dec. 8 is just another working day in Turkey; then again, perhaps it is because Orthodox Christians and Protestants do not recognize the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Yet, Dec. 8, precisely because there will be no vast crowd of people, is sure to be a privileged day for the handful of Catholics who will go there to celebrate Mass with the community of Capuchins and sisters who are custodians of the house.

"Once again, all those who come will return changed," said Fr. Adriano Franchini, resident of Meryem Ana Evi (the house of Mary) and superior of the Franciscan Custody of Turkey. "I am sure of that because the house of Mary brings consolation and peace to all."

In 1891, a Lazarist priest who was teaching at Sacred Heart College of Smyrna and two of his friends ventured into the mountains overlooking the ruins of Ephesus on Turkey's Aegean coast. Guided by clues from the German mystic Anna Katharina Emmerick, the trio found the remains of a house alongside a spring of water half hidden by tress on July 29 of that year. On those foundations, they reconstructed a house. The site has never received official approval of authenticity, but it has become a much visited pilgrim site -- more than a million a year.

Pope John XXIII visited the shrine many times during his stay as apostolic delegate in Turkey, while Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II came here as pilgrims in 1967 and 1979 respectively.

There are two traditions about the last years of the life of the mother of Jesus. Some say she traveled with St. John the Evangelist to Ephesus but then returned to Jerusalem, where she died. Others say Mary spent the last years of her life here in a house St. John built, living in silence and in prayer.

"I am convinced that Mary's spirit continues to live here and it can be felt," says Fr. Tarcy, an Indian Capuchin who has been here for a dozen years. "Often I see people, men and women, young and old, deeply moved and even in tears. When asked, 'Why do you cry, are you sad?', the reply is always the same: 'No, I am not sad, I am deeply moved, I feel something special here, a peace, a joy, a warm welcome, a happiness.' "

Tarcy says that no matter what sufferings or struggles people bring with them, an intense inner peace enfolds them here. "Feeling truly at ease, they can rest, like members of one family whatever religion they belong to," he said.

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Christians of many denominations visit Meryem Ana Evi. It is also a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. Mary, the mother of the Prophet Jesus, is cited 30 times in the Quran. "When our Muslim brothers and sisters come to Meryem Ana Evi, they do not come as tourists and mere visitors. They come here to pray," Tarcy says.

They arrive alone, in family groups, organized tours and on school trips, Tarcy says. "In line with their tradition, they tie strips of cloth to the tree branches. This is their prayer."

"And so," he continues, "the olive trees and creepers are always decorated. And in these days of December it is above all Muslims who are close to us, who come to pray up here."

Tarcy says, "Perhaps this is the only place in the world where people of two great religions -- Islam and Christianity -- can pray together without tension."

In a letter to Archbishop Josef Descuffi of Smyrna dated July 22, 1957, Pope Pius XII praised Meryem Ana Evi as a "center of Marian cult unique in the world, where Christian and Muslim believers of all rites and all nations can meet to venerate the Mother of Jesus and to verify the truth of those prophetic words: 'All generations will call me blessed.' "

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