We are coming to the end of our course, “The Cradle of Early Christianity,” after time spent journeying from Athens, to Thessalonica, to Philippi, to Pergamum (modern Bergama), Smyrna (modern Izmir), Ephesus, and Constantinople (Istanbul). We have surveyed the ruins of numerous ancient cities, temples, statues, churches, and seen many churches which have become mosques and then museums. A few of these churches transformed into mosques continue to function as mosques even today. It is hard not to ask what has happened to the Spirit, which lead to the transformation of the pagan Roman Empire through the work of the Apostles Paul and John, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna amongst many other Christian missionaries and Church leaders.
Yesterday a group of students and I received an answer to this question, at least partially. We went to Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Istanbul. The Church was so cold that we could see our breath when we exhaled in this gorgeous building. More significantly, the Mass in English was packed with people from the Philippines and Africa who lived and worked in Istanbul. They were full of fervor and joy. The second reading from 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 fit the occasion perfectly: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many. You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” The body of Christ has many parts and numerous gifts. I have kept on looking for the heirs of the eastern Roman Empire, and there are not many of them here. For all sorts of reasons, due to conquest, infighting, political emigration and more sinister events perpetrated against them, they are not here in great numbers. Yet, the body of Christ has grown to include members who come from areas Paul could not have imagined. In sheer numbers, there are not many of them, but they are alive to the Spirit of God.
These Christians are also a wake-up call to a western Christian used to material comforts, spiritual freedom and a kind of spiritual torpor and laziness, that the Spirit is emanating from other areas than the West. It might seem like the body of Christ is not present or alive because it does not fit my historical conception of what it ought to be or because it does not reflect my neighborhood parish in wealth or demographics, but the missionary work started by Paul and other early Christian apostles and disciples is alive here today. It is a matter of the Spirit, not wealth, Empire or numbers.
John W. Martens