Letter from Don Andrea Santoro, the priest who was assassinated in Turkey.
Cardinal Ruini wants to open his process for canonization.
I want to start by telling you good things since it is a fine thing to praise God when things are going well and not only to do so when it rains and we ask for the sun. It is good to be able to see the blades of green grass even when we are in the process of crossing a steppe.
Here are a few blades of green grass for you. One day, a bit before I came back to Italy, at the time of the opening of the church, a group of rather loud and noisy boys entered. I am used to this: in order to get silence and respect, all you have to do is approach them and remind them that the church is, just like a mosque, a place of prayer that God loves and in which He feels at home. A small group of 4-5 boys about 14-15 years old approached and started to ask questions: “Why are you here? Were you forced to come here?” -“No, I came voluntarily, freely.” -“Why?”
-“Because I like Turkey. Because there was a church here and a group of Christians without a priest, so I made myself available. This was to favor good relationships between Christians and Muslims…” –“But are you happy here?” (They used the word ‘MUTLU’ that means ‘happy’ in Turkish). –“Yes I am certainly happy. Now that I have met you, I am even happier. I want your good.” At this moment, the eyes of a girl lit up; she looked at me deeply and said enthusiastically: “We also want your good.” To say “we also want your good” in a church with Christians and Muslims seemed like a ray of sunlight for me. This alone would be enough to justify my coming here. Is not the kingdom of heaven like a tiny mustard seed, the tiniest of all seeds? You throw it down and leave it alone… Is it not true that if you love, you know God and you make Him known, but if you do not love, even if you have great knowledge or can speak many languages or even if you were to give all that you have to the poor, you would be a clanging cymbal?
Another blade of grass. One evening, in the beginning of December, I was driving my minibus; I had to make a turn. I put on my blinker and started to turn. A car came very quickly and the driver had to slam on his brakes not to hit me. Someone got out of the car and started yelling. Knowing how Turks can easily get angry, especially when they are drunk, I kept going, afraid that they had bad intentions. I noticed that they were chasing me. When I came to a square, they blocked my route.
They opened my door. One of them punched me, another pulled me from the seat and another wanted to drag me. The mark of this punch stayed several days and at times my shoulder still hurts. The police intervened: these youths were drunk and a statement charging them was written up. I came back home angry, asking myself how people could become like beasts. Then came to mind quarrels ending up with a dead body, violence on a girl who is alone, and sadistic pleasure at the expense of some poor unfortunate being. I must be honest with you: I was afraid and couldn’t sleep during several nights. I kept asking myself: why? How is this possible? A week later, in the evening, they rang at the church’s door. I went to open it. There were three 25-30 year old youths. One of them asked me: “Do you remember me?” I examined him and recognized the one who had grabbed me by the shoulder. “I came to excuse myself. I was drunk and I behaved badly. Father, forgive me.” –“O.K., I said, don’t worry. But don’t do that to anyone else.” Then they asked me to visit the church. He continued excusing himself at each step. He saw a page of the Gospel exposed in the window: “Love your enemies” and then he understood why I had forgiven him. He then said to me: “Even in our religion we say: Throw flowers at the one who throws stones at you.” Then, he continued: “One day, after we had hit you, we had an accident. The car was demolished, one of my friends is still in hospital and we are both full of bruises. At home we say that if someone hurts someone else and dies, he cannot present himself before God, for God will say to him: you have to go and see that person first. For you, Father, is it the same thing?” –“We also say that it is not enough to speak to God; you have to repair the harm that you did to your neighbor. However we also say that if the innocent one offers his suffering for the guilty one, he obtains from God the forgiveness for the one who harmed him, just as Jesus offered his innocent life to save sinners. Jesus became a lamb for the wolves that devoured Him and prayed: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. With His cross He broke the spear.”
At this point, they looked at the cross. The third one was my neighbor who had showed them the way to the church and became their mediator. He was glad to have shown them the church and have obtained reconciliation with the priest he knew. There followed an invitation to dinner after my return from Italy. We’ll see if the punch received will bring a nice plate of roast lamb!
Another blade of grass? On a Friday in church, a group of boys was especially ill mannered and insolent. Three others, much older, watched from further away. At the end, they asked to speak. They asked all sorts of intelligent questions and listened with respect to my answers as they brought up worthy objections. We said good-bye. The next morning a youth rang my doorbell: I recognized one of the three. He gave me chocolates: “Father, accept my gift. I ask forgiveness for those ill mannered boys yesterday.”
Another time, two girls came in: “Father, do you recognize me?” asked one of them. –“Yes, certainly!” –“Once, you told me that Jesus never used the sword, isn’t that so?” –“Yes, it is so”. “Mahomet – she said – it is true that he used it, but only as a last resort…” “Jesus – I answered her – never used it, not even as a last resort. I send you as lambs among the wolves, he said, and he became a lamb in order to win over the wolves. If you use violence against violence, then there is a double violence. Evil plus evil equals double evil. We need a double good to hold back evil. If a fire breaks out, what do you do? Do you throw more wood on it?” –“No, water.” - “There it is, exactly. But it’s not easy. Nevertheless, that’s the Gospel. In the hands of Jesus, there is no sword, just the cross…” She followed me with attention, but was disconcerted. Why am I amazed? How many Christians are not only disconcerted but do not look at the cross any more? They no longer accept the knowledge, the strength, and the victory of the cross. They have converted to the sword in their public and private life. If a Muslim does this, basically this is not strange, he follows his founder. But if a Christian does it, he no longer follows his own Founder, even though there are crosses everywhere: on one’s neck, in one’s house and on each church steeple.
Another blade of a soft green. In the plane, returning from a meeting with the bishop of Iskenderun, next to me there was an old couple and a young girl, elegant and cute. The old couple was badly dressed and lacked experience. The young girl with much care tied the seat belts for these two persons; she bent all the way down to pick up something that had fallen; she served them in every way she could, not just with respect but with veneration. The man continued fingering his Muslim rosary, his lips saying the 99 names of God. The woman next to him, silent with a veil on her head, seemed happy next to her good husband in prayer.
Now, I’ll give you a glimpse of the steppe in which I find it difficult to walk at times, but in which I go voluntarily, trying to be a blade of grass, even though at times I feel like a rose with thorns. When I tell you that in order to defend myself from the thorns of others, I bring out my thorns, then I place myself under the cross; I look at it and I decide again to follow “my” Founder who never uses either a sword or thorns, but who accepted them to break the sword and pull out the thorns of resentment, enmity, and hostility. I ask him to send me “his” Spirit to protect mine.
Let us start with the children. Next to those who are smiling, affectionate, respectful, during these last months the number of stone throwers, troublemakers, and “little agitators” of all sorts has greatly increased. Children are the mirrors of the world of adults. At home, school, or TV many lies and calumnies are said about Christians. The result can only be mockery on the part of these “little ones” that Jesus wanted to come to him, warning those who “scandalized them”, that is to say those who are for them “the cause of their going astray or being encouraged to do evil”. I remembered those times in my infancy when I heard “bad things being said” concerning the only Protestant family of my country or when I heard someone say that all Turks were “misers”. At times the evil you heard brings up the evil done, even though you had forgotten it. At other times I think of the words of the suffering Job, a figure of the passion of Jesus: “My brothers stand aloof of me… Even the children look down on me, ever ready with a jibe when I appear.” (Job 18:7; 19:18)
We are studying how to be more affable, hospitable, silent, smiling, and persuasive.
A Muslim family that had become Christians before I arrived at Trabzon told me of the tears shed by their children at school when all sorts of bad things were said about Christians. They spoke of this with the professor and received apologies and a commitment to greater honesty and correctness. A father registered as a Muslim on his identity document (in Turkey the religion is noted on the identity document), wanted to return to the Christian faith of his ancestors. But he faced insults and threats by some in his village. “If they attack me and I answer them, am I still a Christian?” he asked me in a worried and pensive state. “Yes – I answered him – because the Lord understands our weaknesses. But remember that for us, as Christians, “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is not permitted. We are the disciples of the One who has wounds over his whole body and says to Peter: “Put your sword back in its scabbard… ” Against sin Jesus put up the wall of His sacrificed body and his spilled blood. Christianity was born from the blood of the martyrs, not by using violence as an answer to violence.” A youth, who had taken steps toward the church for honest and sincere reasons was not able to resist the hostility of his friends, relatives, neighbors, and the ‘attention” of the police who while guaranteeing his freedom (“Turkey is a lay state; you are free”), constantly asked him why he went to church, what he did there and if he knew so and so… A Russian Christian woman married to a Muslim and mother of a child told me of the humiliations on the part of her mother-in-law, the scorn of her husband’s parents since she was “a pagan and an idolater”, and repeated pressures to become a Muslim. When she read a phrase written in Russian upon entering the church, her face lit up. I gave her at once a Bible in Russian as well as other Russian prayer books. She finally felt “free” and truly a “sister”.
Let me now reflect out loud in the light of all I have just told you. They often say and write that in the Koran Christians are considered as the best friends of Muslims; they praise their gentleness, their mercy and humility. For them also paradise is possible. It is true. But the opposite is also as true: it invites them not to consider them as friends; they say that their faith is full of ignorance and errors; that one must fight against them and impose a contribution on them… Christians and Jews are second-class believers and citizens. Why do I say these things? Because I think that it is just and good to rejoice over good thoughts, good intentions, good behavior and steps that go forward; one must also be convinced that at the heart of Islam and of countries having a majority of Muslims, people must be effectively assured of full respect, an esteem and total equality as far as citizenship and conscience are concerned. Dialogue and common life exist, not when one agrees with the ideas and choices of others (no Muslim is held to this, no Christian, no human) but when they are allowed to have a place next to their own people, but when there is an exchange as a gift of the proper spiritual heritage, when one is allowed to express this, give witness to it and introduce it in one’s public life and not just in private. The road left to travel is long and will not be easy. Two errors have to be avoided: to think that life in common is impossible among men of different religions or believe that it is only possible by underestimating and leaving aside the real problems, by avoiding to deal with the points that are the most difficult, concerning public and private life, individual or community freedoms, individual conscience or the legal structure of states.
The richness of the Middle East is not oil, but rather its religious fabric, its soul bathing in faith, its “holy land” for Jews, Christians and Muslims, its past marked by God’s “revelation’ rather than a lofty civilization. Also the complexity of the Middle East is not linked to oil or a strategic position but to its religious soul. The God who reveals Himself and is served “with passion” is a God who divides, a God who favors someone over someone else and gives authority to someone against someone else. In this heart that is at the same time luminous, unique and sick in the Middle East, one must enter on tiptoe, with humility, but also with courage since clarity goes hand in hand with tenderness.
The advantage that we Christians have of believing in a disarmed God, in a Christ who invites us to love our enemies, serve in order to become “lord” of the house, become last in order to be first, believe in a Gospel that forbids hatred, anger, judging, domination, believe in a God who becomes a lamb and lets himself be stricken in order to kill in him pride and hatred, believe in a God who attracts by loving and not dominate with power, this is an advantage that must not be lost. It’s an advantage that may seem to be “a disadvantage” and a loss and such it is in the eyes of the world, but it is victorious in the eyes of God and capable of conquering the heart of the world. St. John Chrysostom said: Christ feeds the lambs, not the wolves. If we become lambs, we will win; if we become wolves, we will lose. It’s not easy, just as the cross of Christ is not easy; the charm of the sword is always tempting. Will there be someone who will want to offer to the world the presence of “this” Christ? Will there be someone accepting to be present in this world of the Middle East simply as a “Christian”, “salt” in the soup, “leaven” in the dough, “light” in the room, “window” through the walls that have been put up, “bridge” between opposite banks, “offer” of reconciliation? There are many, but even more are needed. This is an invitation that goes beyond just thinking. Come!
I leave you thanking you for your hospitality during the three weeks spent in Rome. I want to especially thank the many Roman pastors and all those who invited me to meetings or give witness. I thank God for all those who opened their heart. But let it be more open, even braver. May their spirit be open to understand, the soul to love, the will to say “yes” to the call! Let us also be open when the Lord leads us on the road of suffering and has us travel in the steppe rather than on the blades of grass. Suffering lived in abandonment like the steppe crossed with love becomes a throne of wisdom, a source of richness, a place steeped with fertility. We will stay in contact. United in prayer, I greet you with affection. You can write your thoughts, ask your questions, and express your suggestions. Together, we can best serve the Lord.
Don Andrea Rome-Trabzon, January 22, 2006