12/06/2005, 00.00
TURKEY
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Ephesus: the feast of the Immaculate Conception at Mary's house

by Mavi Zambak

The "House of the Blessed Virgin Mary" in Ephesus, where according to tradition the Mother of Jesus lived the last years of her life, is the only place in the world where both Christians and Muslims go to pray. It is a place which "brings peace and consolation to all".

Izmir (AsiaNews) – Not too many pilgrims will be clambering up the slopes of Bulbul dag ("hill of the nightingale") where the so-called "House of the Blessed Virgin Mary" is found. It could be because now summer is over, winter has crept in and groups of foreigners have melted away; or it may be because 8 December is just another working day in Turkey; then again, perhaps it is because the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is not recognized by Orthodox Christians and Protestants.

And yet, 8 December, precisely because there will be no vast crowds of people, is sure to be a privileged day for the handful of Catholics who will go there from Smyrna and whereabouts to celebrate Mass together with the Community of Capuchins and sisters who are custodians of the house.

"Once again, all those who come will return changed, I am sure of that," said Fr Adriano Franchini, resident of Meryem Ana Evi (the house of Mary) and superior of the Francisan Custody of Turkey. "Yes, because the house of Mary brings consolation and peace to all." This is because according to tradition, it is right here, not far from Ephesus, that the Mother of Jesus lived and died. "Mary did not live in Ephesus itself, but in its surroundings, where some of her friends had settled. Her house was right on top of a mountain… the region is a solitary one, embellished with fertile hills, with grottos which could serve as homes and bare trees with smooth trunks, casting a shadow with their pyramidal shape. Only the house of Our Lady was in stone; a path behind the house climbed up a mountain with a rocky peak, from where it was possible to see Ephesus and the sea studded with islands."

Armed with these clues given by fourteenth century German mystic, Anna Katharina Emmerick, a Lazarist priest, who used to teach at the Sacred Heart College of Smyrna, ventured with two friends on the mountains overlooking the ruins of Ephesus on Turkey's Aegean coast. On 29 July 1891 they found, alongside a spring of water, the remains of a house, even better than a chapel, semi-hidden by trees, exactly as portrayed in the mystic's visions.

Perhaps this sanctuary will never receive official approval of its authenticity. Since ancient times, Christians have flocked here in pilgrimage on the octave of the feast of Mary's Dormition (15 August) – our Assumption – because it is held to be the tomb of the "All Holy" (Panaghia). What is certain is that every year, more than one million people come to visit this "House of Our Lady".  Popes Paul VI and John Paul also went on pilgrimage there.

Official papers of the Turkish government designate the site as a museum for all intents and purposes but in reality, visitors – regardless of their nationality, culture, language or religion, and notwithstanding the entrance ticket they must buy – consider it a holy place.

Amid the silence and greenery, a simple brick house, composed of two areas identified as the living room and bedroom of the Virgin who ended her earthly life here. The suffused light shining through the small windows is made even more suggestive by countless candles which constantly light up the small sanctuary.

Fr Tarcy, an Indian Capuchin who has been there for a dozen years or so, said: "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, a peace, a joy, a warm welcome, a happiness which… I want to stay here forever."

Others add: "This is a special place, a sacred place. I feel the presence of Mary, our Mother; she certainly lived here."

Perhaps it is the comments of many visitors, authentic, sincere, honest, true and loving comments, which are the greatest proof that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, did live here in the last years of her life and that she did die here. So the Assumption happened here, added the monk, long-limbed and ethereal in his cowl.

"There are two traditions about the last years of the life of Our Lady: some say that Mary arrived in Ephesus with John but then returned to Jerusalem where she died. Others say Mary spent the last years of her life in the house John built for her on the hills near ancient Ephesus, living in silence and in prayer. I am convinced that Mary's spirit continues to live here and it can be felt. An intense inner peace enfolds those who come here, be they engaged, married or otherwise, widows or divorced, men or women, young and old people who after many struggles, efforts and suffering feel welcome here. Feeling truly at ease, they can rest, like members of one family whatever religion they belong to."

Everyone feels at home. Meryem Ana Evi is a place of prayer all year around for Catholics who live there and who each morning celebrate holy Mass, and it is place where Christians from Turkey and all nations of the world visit to pay their devotions. Although they belong to various Churches, here they have the possibility to celebrate services in their own language and tradition. Just as the house is visited by Christians, it is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims too. In the Koran, in fact, only one woman gets a mention about 30 times: Mary the Mother of the Prophet Jesus. "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," continues Fr Tarcy. "Perhaps this is the only place in the world where people of the two great religions – Islam and Christianity – can pray together without tension."

"They arrive alone, with relatives, in organised groups, on school trips and even army units. In line with their tradition, they tie strips of cloth to the tree branches: this is their prayer, raised to Heaven to obtain special graces or to be liberated from Evil. And so 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.

"Even those who do not belong to any religion, but who appreciate the value and meaning of silence, of peace, of encounter and reflection, willingly stop by here, as a relief from secularism, and they find comfort."

Something which never fails to catch the attention of all pilgrims, and which leaves an impression on them, is that the status of Mary on the altar is without hands. When it was recovered after Turkey's independence war in 1922, it was like that and no one ever thought of making new hands, perhaps because Mary, after welcoming everyone, invites them to be her arms in the world.

On 22 July 1957, Pius XII wrote to Mgr Descuffi, then archbishop of Smyrna, praising him for the zeal shown towards Meryem Ana Evi, "where according to tradition Mary's sepulchre is kept". He indicated the place as a "Centre 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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