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Jesuits News Missions Believing in life, among the rubble

Believing in life, among the rubble

The young people accompanied by Fr. Francesco Cavallini SJ arrived in Iskenderun on 2 April and left after Easter. Below is the journal of Holy Week written for GesuitiNews. Here is the first part

Maundy Thursday

We celebrated the Chrismal Mass in the morning in the small hall of the Vicariate converted into a chapel, since the cathedral has collapsed. Other priests from the diocese have also arrived for the occasion. The diocesans, focolarini, nuns, and the consecrated together make up a dozen or so people, but they have the energy and cheerfulness of a thousand people, thanks also to the vital contribution of the Caritas volunteers who have devoted themselves body and soul to bring the Church of Anatolia back to life.

The day continues with the unpacking of food donated by the Spanish army. The food is sorted out by type to make it easier to reuse the parcels that Caritas have prepared.

And it is already evening time… The first liturgy of the Triduum, by the grace of God, can be celebrated in the small church of St George, one of the very few – perhaps the only, although fractured – Christian churches left standing in the city. To the profound joy of Bishop Paolo Bizzeti SJ, the authorities have declared it accessible and can be used for celebrations.

Between Italian and Turkish, and the languages of the local community and of the people present in the Vicariate these days, we experience with pathos this profound ancient liturgy, which has one of its strongest signs in the washing of the feet. Fr. Paolo is a tall man, with a profound gaze, great charisma, strength, wisdom, long experience and intense love for the communities entrusted to him. That is why it is even more striking to see him bending to wash and kiss the feet of the twelve chosen people.

Good Friday

After morning prayers, they ask us to tidy up a little and load a civil defence tent onto a van: they will take it to a deaf and mute family who have requested it. This is part of a village inhabited by Afghan and Uzbek refugees, located in the Antioch mountains, about 45 minutes from Iskenderun. We are struck by the distances that Caritas covers here on a daily basis and are intrigued by this experience. So, we ask to accompany them for the delivery and there we spend three hours setting up the tent, and also distributing food and basic necessities to various families, learning that in these villages there are many children who gladly run to meet us and with whom we exchange smiles, play a little, and to whom we show a small sign of closeness. Their village, which has suffered so many damages due to the earthquake, has definitely collapsed: it will take a lot of energy to build it again, but these people have serene eyes and, inexplicably for us, they transmit peace.

They live in abject poverty, and yet…

It is Good Friday, a day of fasting…and given the tight schedule, we really do! A warm, fragrant loaf, bought in the village, was our shared lunch: it has a very special taste…it tastes good.
On our return to the Vicariate, the Stations of the Cross awaited us, which some of us had prepared. It was an intense moment with great participation, thanks to the contribution of the priests, the cloistered nuns who live here, the Caritas people and the Italian volunteers. Once again, a sense of community stands out, and the communion around the Lord, the desire to live these Easter days together with intensity. It takes place within the walls of the Vicariate, but somehow it gathers all the world: the stations wind their way between the collapsed cathedral, the statue of the Virgin Salus Popoli placed there by Monsignor Bizzeti when he survived a difficult bout of Covid-19 two years ago, the civil protection tents welcoming the displaced and the Caritas Anatolia sites, arriving in the hall of the chapel.

In the meantime, various people, arriving from various places in Europe, ring the doorbell and are warmly welcomed. They knock to ask if help is needed or are stopping here for a few days before continuing on their way to Antioch. Some stay, some don’t, but everyone is welcomed in the same way: they receive a smile, hospitality, a place to sleep and lovingly prepared meals to share with others who are in this place of Life.

Amidst wonderful moments of conviviality and sharing, fostered by common prayer and working together, it is now time for the Friday evening liturgy. Today, too, it takes place in St George’s Church. Slowly the community starts arriving, the three priests enter and prostrate before the altar. The community makes its presence felt by singing loudly, even if it is not always in tune…but the desire to participate, to contribute to the liturgy goes far beyond being shy about one’s own voice. There are few Latin Catholics here, but their faith is felt strongly.

Holy Saturday

The day begins with morning prayer. During the liturgy, the Bishop emphasises how important a day it is in itself and not just a day of preparation for Easter, so he invites us to spend some time giving service, “which gives concreteness to prayer”.

So, we plunge into the rubble of the cathedral and bring out furniture that can be salvaged and give it a good cleaning. We need an intense shower. We store them in some rooms that are still standing in the structure. In the afternoon, we start preparations for the Vigil which is the greatest of all vigils to make it more beautiful for a community that has suffered so much and needs more than usual to feel accompanied and loved. So, between volunteers and nuns, we cleaned the small garden of St George’s, we procured and prepared beautiful flowers, we recovered a stable pedestal for the Easter candle, we retrieved the materials for the brazier of the new fire and chose the songs for the liturgy, and we identified those who would read… A little bit of Italian and a little bit of Turkish, with an Argentinean nun who acted as a link between these two worlds! It was truly a special grace to have such an experience and breathe in such a Church!

We have Dinner and then off we go for the rehearsals of the hymns… The mass must be beautiful, these people have experienced death and are still trembling with fear. But tonight, the celebration is about the Resurrection and must convey celebration!
We are almost ready, people are slowly beginning to arrive…there are more of us than on previous evenings, people have smiles on their faces and a little sadness in their eyes, but they seem happy to be here.
Mgr Bizzeti, with the invaluable help of Fr Antuan SJ who translates into Turkish, starts his homily with the earthquake, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, linking it to the earthquake that people experienced here eight weeks ago and of which they are still so afraid. He invites people to have faith and hope in the One whom the Father has resurrected, to look forward, to believe in life, which is also slowly being regenerated here.

It is Easter!


It was decided to celebrate the Eucharist, by the grace of God and the concession of the civil authorities, in the most symbolic place hit by the earthquake, in Antioch, the site of the oldest Christian tradition in the area, the Church of St Peter, what is believed to have been the first Chair of Peter. This is why Bishop Bizzeti opened the celebration by recalling the words of the Gospel: ‘The Angel of the Lord, that is the Lord, is above the earthquake and it is very significant for us to be here today to celebrate the Easter Resurrection, to celebrate for the living and the dead’. The occasion was even more significant by the presence of an Armenian priest, who concelebrated in the Eucharist.

It is a big grace for each of us to have been able to share such a special Holy Week, in the hope of taking with us the joy of Christ, whom we have encountered here, and to be witnesses of it to those whom we meet.

To our Turkish brothers, Christians, Muslims, non-believers, my wish is that they will soon live again in fullness, as they are already doing.

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