07/05/2010, 00.00
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Ankara, mass of Fr. Antuan, first Turkish Jesuit

by Maria Grazia Zambon
Faithful of all Christian denominations, Jesuit leaders from Italy and the Middle East and the papal nuncio, Mgr. Lucibello, present. He only became a Christian 13 years ago. Among his projects: bioethics and dialogue between Christians and Muslims. The memory of Father Andrea Santoro.

Ankara (AsiaNews) - An unforgettable event, yesterday, for the small, shrunken Christian community in Ankara, gathered in the church of St. Therese of Lisieux: the first Jesuit of Turkish nationality, Antuan Ilgit, celebrated his first mass in the very place where he was formed in the faith.

This is a very special community, composed of a few hundred people scattered among the six million inhabitants of this Turkish metropolis.  It is a varied flock of Christians of diverse confessions, Latins, Armenians and Syrians, both Catholic and Orthodox. Yesterday they were all there together to celebrate their son with joy and emotion.

38-year-old Father Antuan is a Turkish citizen raised in Mersin, 25 km from Tarsus.  In an emotional homily delivered in his native tongue, he recalled how: "Just fifteen years ago I met this community. Fresh out of college, a graduate in Economics and Administration, during military service here in Ankara, I began to attend church. And from here I left for Italy to begin my priestly journey. Ordained a priest in Rome last Saturday, after having long desired it, I am once again back among you, for my first mass”.

A solemn and reverent silence, tears of emotion and pride that glisten on the faces of some faithful. "My encounter with the Lord Jesus was the revelation of a boundless love, a love that gave me the freedom and truth I was looking for – he continued with great calm. – My first reaction was to want to share this news with others who do not know it. It was hard to contain this news just for me, hidden in a corner of my heart. And so I left for Italy to become a priest, to pass on to others all that I too had received".

"The journey which today has led me to preside over this Eucharist – he continued - was not easy, but now, after many of life’s vicissitudes, joy and pain, it is a grace for me to be here with you and a great gift that God makes to this community. We know that things will not always be smooth, there will be crises and difficulties, but we also discover that we are not alone, that we are and will always be accompanied by Someone!".

He was joined in the celebration by two Jesuit provincial superiors, Fr Charles Casalone of the province of Italy and Fr Victor Asuad of the province of the Middle East, the three Jesuits already in Ankara and those who had come from Italy, a friend and fellow Turk who is now a Capuchin priest in Smyrna, a close presbyterate, gathered around him in a deeply familial atmosphere. And, sealing and confirming this ecclesial event of universal significance, the participation of the Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey, Mgr. Antonio Lucibello.

At the moment of the consecration, as the Turkish Jesuit lifted the chalice in front of the faithful, kneeling, he finally was able to repeat those words, which had rocked him so deeply the first time he had heard them uttered: "Take and eat, this is my body given up for you".

Eating, the most elementary and human of things, it is amazing that you can do with the highest and most unattainable: the turning point in his life was the discovery that Jesus is not only a prophet, God is not a distant, unreachable entity, but is close at hand, he made himself a man among men, consumed for the sake of all. Eating God, completely unthinkable for Islamic categories, yet so fascinating to a young man like him, who wanted to understand God

Thus it was that Fr Antuan, born and raised Muslim, began to question his faith and explore Christianity. He himself is keen to constantly repeat: "It was the Lord who made me take a quantum leap toward the person of Jesus.  But it was not a drastic step, rather a long and patient journey. My conversion was a refinement of my faith. The Islamic part of my path is very important for me because the Lord revealed himself to me in the Islamic faith, in faith in the One God.  This is how he drew close to me.  I will not give up on this part of my life, Christianity is the next step, it is the culmination of the previous path which as a whole I consider to be a real gift”.

What does he hope for now? After earning his BA in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, he did a year of studies at the Pontifical Oriental Institute and will now continue with a license in Moral Theology and bioethics at the Alphonsian Academy (PUL). "I have to complete my studies. – he confides - my thesis project on early life issues - such as abortion, contraception, assisted reproduction and use of stem cells - in Turkish Bioethics, compared with Catholic teaching has been accepted. I would like to approach my work from an anthropological and religious viewpoint. I will study the fatwa of the Presidency of Religious Affairs which is a cumbersome institution in a country that declares itself to be secular. It is the first step of the kind of dialogue that I wish to continue. "

But his heart beats above all for his people, his land, of which is extremely proud. In the first reading of the Mass yesterday, from the book of Isaiah we read: "you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you".

Fr. Antuan commented: "Behold, God today, with this motherly love, gives his Church a new priest for years the Lord has provided priests, first Assumptionists and now Jesuits, who, despite a thousand difficulties, with a humble heart and with sacrifices have served our church. The small community of Ankara, has a great place in God’s heart, and He once again tells you all: 'I am with you, you are few, the problems are many, but I am with you, I will not leave you alone".

With deep gratitude to all foreign priests who preceded him, now his greatest desire is to return permanently to his land, a shepherd for his community: "Certainly Turkey is in my heart, Ankara is in my heart. I, like you, am a son of this land. We love this land and we desire prosperity, unity, peace, fraternity. If, one day, I come back here as a priest, I will open to all of you, my beloved brethren, my heart and my arms".

The vocation of Father Antuan is a great sign of hope, a seed that has blossomed in the land that was home to the first Christian communities and now tried by a thousand trials. No coincidence that on the small memorial card distributed at the end of the Eucharistic celebration, Fr Antuan put a sentence of Don Andrea Santoro: "I am here to live among these people and allow Jesus to do so through me".

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