Trabzon (AsiaNews) – Everything went off without a hitch. The mass on the first anniversary of the murder of Fr Andrea Santoro was celebrated at 11.30 am according to script without any demonstrations. Everyone was calm expect for the reporters, including those from Turkey, who were all worked up for the event.
This morning Trabzon woke up under a cold and dreary sky. Few people braved the streets as stores along the promenade in this old Black Sea city stood empty—in the background, the picturesque snowy mountains that surround the city. It was just another tedious day like any other, in a city that made the headlines for its recent violent and bloody past.
Streets were silent, picture of quietness, except for police cruisers parked on steep road that leads up to the door of the small church of Saint Mary, also protected by police.
A year has passed since that afternoon when a teen-ager opened that iron door with its sign in Turkish saying “God loves you”, entered the house of God and shot twice, killing 60-year-old Father Andrea, who was kneeling on the far wooden bench, praying.
Today, Father Andrea’s mother, his sisters, and Card Camillo Ruini and his aides flew in from the Italian capital to commemorate this dramatic event. As the prelate himself said during the mass, they came to represent “the whole of the Church of Rome, beginning with its bishop, the Pope, who travelled to Turkey two months ago in a memorable visit.”
Travelling under police escort from the airport—a strip of land stolen from the sea—, the delegation came to see the place where Father Andrea worked and lived in the last three years of his life.
As preparations for the ceremony were under way inside the church and a host of pushy Turkish and foreign reporters milled around with their cameras, trying to grab a word, a comment, a statement, the Rome group sought instead refuge in the heart of the parsonage-convent, i.e. the small chapel Father Andrea had built where once, decades ago, Capuchin Fathers, who built the monastery in 1854, kept the wine that they themselves pressed and bottled.
Now the old cellar is a warm and welcoming chapel, a basement on which the whole house stands, a place of worship where our fidei donum priest spent hours in silent and hidden adoration and prayer.
And it is here, humbly sitting on a stool, counting his rosary beads, that Cardinal Ruini experienced the truth of the words he pronounced during the homely: “Father Andrea, to whom the Lord had given a penetrating intelligence and a strong character, knew very well that God stays away from those who rely on their own intelligence and knowledge only to reveal himself instead to the small. And yet he, too, remained small before the Lord. He learnt from Jesus, who is meek and humble at heart, and had within himself the certitude that no one knows the Father other than the Son and those to whom the Son reveals Him. Hence he was never ashamed of Christ, but instead always placed his hope and trust in Him.”
Father Andrea’s mother, a distinguished 88-year-old in a modest brown coat sporting faux pearl earrings and a big white scarf, stood motionless for the longest time looking at the beautiful icon depicting the Crucifixion. She continued praying at the foot of the Cross that she taught her son since he was a child, which led Cardinal Ruini to say: “We have come above all to pray. Like Father Andrea who lived here in silent search and in adoration of God, listening to His Word, welcoming humbly and in charity everyone.”
Mgr Antonio Lucibello, apostolic nuncio in Ankara, co-celebrated the Eucharist with Mgr Luigi Padovese, bishop of Anatolia, Fr Roberto Ferrari, a veteran Capuchin who has been working in the area since the seventies, and Father Władimir, the young Polish-born parish priest.
Women religious from southern Anatolia were also present at the ceremony, singing in Turkish. So was a small group of Father Andrea’s friends from Rome who are continuing their friend and brother’s work in the association he founded: “Finestra sul Medio Oriente (Window on the Middle East)”.
The cardinal spoke to all of them with words of encouragement and gratitude. “We have come to express our closeness and fraternal solidarity to the Christian community of Trabzon, Anatolia and the whole of Turkey. We are happy that the nuncio and the bishop of Anatolia could come to celebrate and thank them from the bottom of our hearts. We also thank our pastor, Father Władimir, and each one of you, dear brothers and sisters of Trabzon, who are the small flock of our Lord Jesus. With you we remain united in the shared faith, prayer and charity of Christ.”
The vicar of Rome, who looked intensely and affectionately at three Georgian women present, women who did not hesitate to write to the Pope to invite him to this land, proud of being Christian in the Muslim world, who undauntedly attend church with fervour and steadfastness, said: “We have come moved by affection and gratitude for this priest and pastor who, until blood was spilt, was the faithful witness to the Lord Jesus. We have come, following in his footsteps, in this land where Christianity had its origins, a land he loved intensely and towards which he felt, deep down, a debt of gratitude because it was through this land that the Christian faith reached Rome.”
Trabzon’s mayor was also at the ceremony. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, he gave Father Andrea’s mother, Maria, a bouquet of white flowers as a token of solidarity and closeness, flowers that she immediately placed before the icon showing her son’s smiling and joyful portrait, painted by young Christians from the city of Samsun in remembrance of their pastor and martyr.
In addition to thanking the mayor and the authorities attending the ceremony for their welcome and regrets over last year’s terrible act, Cardinal Ruini said: “We have come with the same spirit that accompanied Father Andrea when he arrived in Turkey, a spirit of friendship towards Turkey and the Turkish people, of high regard and respect for Islam and the Islamic religion. We have come to contribute in person to peace between peoples and religions, to bear witness that dialogue between religions is both possible and a duty, to respect one another’s faith and to love one another as brothers, something which is present in each and every human being, who was created in the image of God.”
But the prelate did not hesitate to say, forcefully and clearly, that “we have also come to assert that religious freedom ought to be upheld everywhere, to ask God to enlighten the mind and heart of each man, so that he can understand God can be worshiped only in freedom and in love for one’s neighbour.”
By way of conclusion, a moved Cardinal Ruini confessed: “We have come bearing the pain of Father Andrea’s death in our hearts but also the joy of the shining witness that he gave Jesus Christ and the certainty that his sacrifice was not in vain.”
The surprise visit of the parents of Father Andrea’s young assassin bore this out. After steadfastly defending their son for months, they chose to express their sorrow after his sentence was pronounced by meeting the woman who was able to forgive her son’s killer right away.
This was a deeply touching gesture of reconciliation and affection that really surprised the bishop of Anatolia, Mgr Padovese, who told all those present that, in the wake of the visits by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Ruini to Turkey, the Catholic Church will continue to have trust in the people of good will who live in this land and in this city.