Turkish Catholics prepare to celebrate Year of Saint Paul

 In Tarsus and Antioch, where the Apostle Paul lived and preached, Catholics are preparing celebrations for the Pauline Year marking the 2,000th anniversary of Saint Paul's birth which will take place from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009. The Bishops of Turkey have stated: "The Catholic Church in Turkey will open the Pauline Year on June 22, 2008 in Tarsus with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Walter Kasper. Following the solemn opening of the year, a symposium will be held on Saint Paul in Tarsus and Iskenderun (June 22-24). The event also forms a part of the itinerary of a national pilgrimage following the footsteps of the Apostle through Tarsus, Antioch, Ephesus, as well as other initiatives accompanied by our Orthodox and Protestant brothers." Tarsus and Antioch, especially, will be sites visited by an ever-growing number of pilgrimage groups from all over the world. For this reason, the Church has asked the Turkish government for permission to celebrate Masses and hold prayer encounters and catechesis in the Church of St Paul in Tarsus, which is currently a museum. The modern-day city is built upon the exact location of ancient Tarsus. Officially speaking, there is not a large Christian presence there, nor are there many churches. Historians recall that in 1884 a church was opened by an Italian Capuchin named Fr Giuseppe da Genova, but it was later closed following the First World War. The only official Christian presence that exists today in Tarsus is formed by three Italian religious sisters. The Church of St Paul, where numerous pilgrims will be able to enter, has been a church for both Byzantine and Armenian Rites. Later, it was used for years for military storage. Finally, it was made into a museum. For the Turkish Bishops, who have written a letter to their faithful on the occasion of the Pauline Year, it seems to be of great importance drawing pilgrims' attention to the places from the life of St Paul, which are "an inheritance for all of Christ's disciples; however, particularly for those of us who are children of this land that he saw at the start of its history, where he preached Christ, and where he bore testimony to Him in so many trials." In Antioch, the local Catholic community is preparing to welcome visitors. Antioch of Orontes (with a current population of 200, 000) was birthplace to the first Christian communities spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles. There, disciples of Christ were first called Christians. In the very same neighbourhood where the disciples met to pray, there is today a small Christian community of about a dozen Catholic families, as well as a considerable number of Greek Orthodox who speak Arabic who come together for sharing their faith and spiritual growth, taking their strength from the Eucharist and the Word of God. The local Catholic community, under the care of Capuchin friar Fr Domenico Bertogli, is active in works of social service, as well as pastoral ministry that work to keep Christians from having to emigrate to other cities or countries for economic reasons. In light of the upcoming pilgrimages, transportation has improved between Antioch and Istanbul. From the capital to Hatay (Antioch's airport, located 25 km from the city), there will be trips twice a day: in the morning at 7am going to Istanbul and in the afternoon at 7.30pm from Istanbul to Antioch. The local Christian communities have found many positive results since the creation, one year ago, of their website: www.anadolukatolikkilisesi.org/antakya.

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