The very day I wrote in praise of Catholic doodads, a friend of mine, having reached me on Skype, aimed her webcam at her own morning’s plunder, which included a Miraculous Medal, a Rosary, and a wooden, dashboard-sized statue of Mary as Queen of Heaven. In terms of quality, it was average, the kind of stuff you settle for when your cat or your kids give you reason to fear you’ll soon have to replace it. But several facts gave it a special dignity and significance:
1) My friend isn’t Catholic
2) She now wants to become Catholic
3) She lives in Istanbul
4) She learned the practicalities of Church life largely through reading Patheos
My friend, whom I shall call Pertev, is 34, divorced, and employed as a translator. Along with her native Turkish, she’s fluent in English, German, and Spanish. The fact that we know each other at all is one of those miracles of the new media. Last summer, Pertev began surfing Patheos. She was in a spiritual-seeking mood. Over the past ten years, since renouncing Islam, she’d explored several varieties of neo-paganism, but had found none satisfying. She’d also studied both Old and New Testaments. After friending me on Facebook, she quizzed me from time to time on various features of Catholicism. I answered with all the detail and objectivity I could muster, but felt shy about evangelizing outright — going for the hard close would have taken me back to my days in mortgages.
Turns out I needn’t have bothered. One day, Pertev said, some impulse impelled her to attend a Catholic Mass, and to enter the parish’s pre-cat program.
I told her, truthfully, that I could relate. Seven years ago, it was a rogue impulse that first carried me through the Church’s doors. I haven’t found my way out since.
Turkey isn’t the worst place for a Catholic convert to live. Then again, it isn’t the best. At the end of the First World War, when troops from the victorious Western Allies occupied key Ottoman cities, the populace, war-shaken to the point of paranoia, accused Western Christian missionaries of acting as Allied agents. Even a century later, in the public mind, a taint of subversion and espionage clings to Western Christians. In 2006, following the murder of Fr. Andrea Santoro by 16-year-old Ouzhan Adkin, Msgr. Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar of Anatolia, warned of an “anti-Christian climate…passed along in families, in schools, in the newspapers.” That climate proved more toxic than even he could have imagined. In 2010, Padovese himself was shot dead by his driver, Murat Altun.
Denominations, like the Assyrian Orthodox communion, whose roots in the country reach deeper, have reported systematic persecution by Muslim neighbors, Turk and Kurd alike. For Pertev, who lives in cosmopolitan Istanbul, these atrocities seem as remote and bizarre as L.A. gang wars. But joining the Church will mean carrying new crosses.
For one thing, there’s the trip. The Catholic church nearest her is a beautiful neoclassical building, made of white stone and dating to the mid-18th century. The parish it serves dates back even further, to 1584. Its showpiece is a wooden icon of the Virgin, donated by one of the parish’s earliest benefactors, which has survived several fires, an earthquake, and the demolition of the surrounding chapel by order of a pissed-off sultan. Pertev finds the place sensually and spiritually fulfilling, which is a good thing, because schlepping there and back takes her almost five hours and costs 20 Turkish liras, or about $10.
Then there’s her father. A haji, he’s watched stolidly as one daughter married an agnostic and another a lapsed Lutheran. Then came Pertev’s double defection of conversion to paganism and marriage to a convinced — and, she says, obnoxious — atheist. Through it all, her father willed himself into a state of denial, probably to preserve his sanity. It’s a trick she hopes he can manage again.
Despite Pertev’s Muslim upbringing, her history with Christianity dates back almost to the very beginning of her life. While practicing medicine in Germany, he father sent her to a Catholic kindergarten. At the beginning of each day, she and her classmates kissed a crucifix and recited a prayer beginning, “Ich und Du in Jesus.” (She sounded pleased when I suggested she’d gotten a lesson on Jewish existentialism into the bargain.) Her father initially bristled at the kissing, but softened when he observed the piety of the nuns. While visiting Spain as a college student, Pertev toured the cathedrals of Salamanca and Toledo. There, she says, meditating on the crucifixes and Madonnas put her into a mystical near-trance.
With hindsight, Pertev sees it as a prompting from the Holy Spirit. “I can see now that God was calling me,” she says. “But at the time, it never occurred to me that becoming Catholic was an option. I knew that Catholic churches existed in Turkey, but they were small, and I didn’t think they were looking for new people. I thought they were satisfied with the people they already had.”
She thinks the Apostolic Vicariates are keeping a low profile on purpose. “They don’t want rednecks saying they’re trying to divide the country.” But she also admits she’d internalized the notion that being Catholic was somehow inimical to being Turkish. “To me, the Catholic Church seemed like something European. Without fully realizing it, I assumed they would turn Turks away from the Church, just like Europe keeps Turkey out of the EU.” Seeing pictures of Cardinals Turkson and Tagle in the run-up to the last conclave helped to dislodge this idea.
Now that she’s lurked for a year, the names of Patheos bloggers are as familiar in Pertev’s mouth as household words: Kathy (which she pronounces “Katie”) Schiffer; Frank Weathers; Mark Shea; Elizabeth Scalia (which she pronounces “SCA-lia”). We’ve all imparted to her a precocious understanding of Church sociology. Even before cracking a Catechism, she knows a radtrad from a neo-Cath. She also knows that Christian love can be a less reliable quality than Christian psychosis. On Facebook, she’s seen Catholics attack her people in terms that would embarrass a Golden Dawn speechwriter. But, armed with her private revelation, Pertev is not to be deterred. “I accept Jesus,” she says. “Besides, you can’t beat pagans for cray-cray.”
Stalin once said that the death of an individual is a tragedy and the death of a million people a statistic. Somewhere in that dungpile of cynicism could be a peanut of wisdom. While we pray for the millions of Middle Eastern Christians fearing for their lives, we can afford to rejoice over this one Middle Eastern Christian-in-progress. We don’t know that she’ll become the next Catherine of Siena, but then, we don’t know that she won’t. Anyway, the next time we bloggers call ourselves out for uncharity, let’s remember that the world’s watching.