Mystery Worshipper: Leo
Church: San Antonio di Padova
Location: Istanbul, Turkey
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 May 2008, 7:00pm
The present Italian neo-Gothic style church of red brick with white marble ornamentation dates from 1912, and replaces an earlier Franciscan church at a different location. It was built on the spot formerly occupied by the Concordia Theatre, where Italian operettas and musical comedies were performed. The church stands in a courtyard between two apartment buildings, aptly named St Anthony's Apartments, which were intended to provide funding for the church. The interior is spacious, with a free-standing altar surmounted by a large stained glass window. On its left is the baptismal font, and on its right a side altar where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Stations of the cross line the north and south walls. Scores of votive candles overflow their stands, lit by the constant stream of pilgrims who visit the church.
This is Istanbul's largest church with the busiest congregation. From 1935 to 1944, the apostolic delegate to Turkey, the Most Revd Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli (later to become Pope John XXIII), preached at this church. He is known in Turkey as the Turkish Pope because of his fluent Turkish and his often expressed love for Turkey and the city of Istanbul. Three masses are celebrated every Sunday – in Italian, English and Turkish. At the mass I attended, the congregation ranged between ages two and seventy, fairly evenly balanced between male and female and mixed in terms of social class.
From the time of the Roman emperor Constantine, who gave his name to the ancient city of Byzantium, until 1453, when troops led by Mehmed the Conqueror broke through Constantinople's walls, the metropolis known today as Istanbul was one of the world's most important centres of Christianity. Today Christians comprise less than 0.3 percent of the entire population of Turkey. The Church of San Antonio di Padova is located on Istiklal Avenue, a thoroughfare lined with food and drink establishments as well as entertainment and cultural venues. Perhaps the most important feature of Istiklal Avenue is that life goes on non-stop in cycles of 24 hours.
There were three concelebrants but no names were given.
What was the name of the service?Messe ("Mass" in Turkish)
How full was the building?
About two-thirds full. I counted 180 people but several left before the end as it appeared to be a longer service than usual.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverent despite tourists milling around.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I don't speak Turkish but I recognised "Alleluia" being sung by the cantor as the altar party entered. The priest began, "In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen," before welcoming people.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
There was a little girl in white (who I later discovered was named Sophie Maria) running up and down and pirouetting. I wondered whether it was her first communion day, but later realised she was going to be baptised, because she was anointed near the beginning of the service. An altar boy blew out the candles at the end. I have been rebuked for doing this in my own church since it is very difficult to get candle wax off the fair linen cloth.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Relaxed and informal. The cantor with a guitar led people in familiar songs. The baptism of Sophie Maria and the mass itself were in Turkish and followed the standard rubrics. Chrismation took place at the start of mass, and the baptism proper followed the sermon and the chanting of the litany of the saints. It seemed strange to hear God the Father addressed as Allah. Everyone prayed the Lord's Prayer in the orans position (with hands extended and lifted upward). The words of the Peace were in Turkish, followed by the singing of a Hebrew worship song.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – He spoke without notes and used a lot of gestures. He smiled often and his voice conveyed amazement.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was the Sunday after the Ascension and I guessed that an oft repeated word that sounded like eujeya meant "the highest."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Everyone praying in the orans position for the Pater Noster, beautiful impromptu harmonies during the singing of "Immaculate Mary", singing shalom aleichem during the Peace, hearing God prayed to as Allah and the singing of the litany of the saints. It reminded me that Sophie Maria was joining this long list of holy people throughout time and space. Some people have argued that Mystery Worshipper reports of a service in an unknown language are pointless, but I knew exactly what was going on and felt very much a part of this extended family gathering.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was slightly annoyed that the service started six minutes late and that there was no chalice on offer. I was also sad that I had paid three visits to the nearby Anglican Chaplaincy to discover it locked on each occasion, with no noticeboard, so I was unable to worship with my own denomination.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The altar party left informally, leaving behind an elderly priest who really needed a helping hand to get down the steps. They made a beeline for Sophie Marias family and there was a lot of applause and photos. I had to meet a friend for dinner, but when I tried to leave I discovered the door had been locked. Someone had to open it for me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I suspect there was some sort of reception, because the priest had pointed to a nearby room. I am sure I would have been made very welcome had I been able to stay.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – It seems to be the centre of a diverse community, with masses in English and Italian, as well as Turkish.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I felt like the member of a huge, extended family that had just welcomed its newest member.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Sophie Maria pirouetting.