Istanbul, the new world! : fr Antonio Visentin recounts the Dominican Mission in Turkey

An interview with Fr Antonio Visentin; a son of the Province of St Dominic in Italy and a missionary in Turkey
fr Antonio Visentin, op

Two hundred meters below the Galata Tower, hides an enduring Dominican presence, that has survived wars and earthquakes, emperors, Sultans and presidents. Today, as never before, it has been reduced to a flicker: four friars between Istanbul and Izmir. The Osservatore Domenicano (the official website of the students of the Province of St Dominic in Italy) has asked fr Antonio Visentin, Superior of the Community, to relate to us the atmosphere on the Bosporus.

Antonio, how did your vocation start?

I was born on the 23rd of March 1953, in Campo San Piero where Saint Anthony of Padua died. We were poor and the parish was far away and we went to the Franciscan church.

When a Dominican, fra. Pierbon, came to speak to us at the catechism class, he asked who wanted to spend a week in the convent. I was shy and I did not answer. My cousin answered on my behalf and in this was how I entered the “network of the black and white”.

… all Dominicans know your love for Brazil.

I have always had the desire for the missions. The 1st of December 1989 I left by ship from Genoa. I spent 21 days at sea. I left in the winter and arrived in the summer. I felt immediately at home. I stayed in Brazil for 6 years. We were supposed to go to the Amazon (and now there is a community there) ... I would have loved to serve the most abandoned people. Instead, the provincial called me back to Italy.

And Turkey?

From 2012; precisely on the 2nd of February, the Day of the Consecrated Life. For me it is like a new consecration. I am very motivated: the mission, the road, adventure, the cultures of the world. Since my childhood, I have found within me this gift for the missions.

At 60 years, to get back to the game again and learn a language in such a different culture is not easy. Maybe, as I tell my brothers, I arrived in the wrong hemisphere. It is a form of poverty. I feel a part of the life of the millions of people who live as foreigners, in different cultures and their struggles are bigger than mine. I already have a house but they must find a job. It is poverty, because you do not have immediate contact with each other, to speak, to know each other, to understand. On the other hand, I try to live my life more deeply.

But Turkey is a world so close and completely new. This fascinates me.

What do the Dominicans do in Turkey?

We provide the diakonia of contemplation, as those Christian monks who filled Mohammed with wonder, praying even at night. We are given the gift to live our spirituality: contemplata aliis tradere. These are the times of prayer to dictate your life and that of the community. And here we are called five times a day to prayer by the muezzin. Sometimes I say this to those around me: listen, they are calling us to prayer. We live in a communion with the Turkish people in this aspect.

And then humanity: we must be cordial people. This is a city full of bridges and cordiality is a bridge with the Turkish people who are very hospitable. This our home must be a sign of hospitality.

Finally the study: a dedicated time to deepen the knowledge of the mystery of God and of the Church in a path of communion with our sister Christian Churches and the great challenge with our Muslim brothers who have a totally different view of life and of God. Making contact with people is simple, when you are on the street, go shopping, on the boat. But indeed, this is not enough. It is also necessary to have more important contacts, at the university with those who form the mentality of a country, a culture.

When did the Dominicans arrive in Turkey?

We have been here since 1230, to bring our Orthodox brothers back into communion with Rome and take care of the Levantine community. There was no real concern for dialogue with Islam at that time. By reading the chronicles of our brothers, we understand that there was not much regard for the Turkish Muslim world then. Now things have changed. In this city, in this place, I bless God even more for the gift given to the Church and to humanity by the opening of the Vatican Council II. When John XXIII was a nuncio here, he already invited us to move out. He said that we are no longer in the time of the catacombs.

Now the parish community is gone, we must understand where to focus our attention, our passion, our pastoral care. But rather than ask ourselves: "What are we doing here?" we should ask ourselves: "What is God doing for us?" We will develop projects, but things do not change. Planning is important, but here it is sometimes as if the ground is being ripped right out from under your feet. It’s like our life is useless, as the Gospel says: unworthy servants.

I believe instead that we must let ourselves be moulded by the Spirit of God and by the concrete history of this country, like the tree carved by nature.

fr. Luca Refatti

(translated from the original article in Italian)


(25 March 2017)