"Our Small Flock in Istanbul Is Building Bridges"

by Giuseppe Caffulli |  September 6, 2016

Bishop Ruben Tierrablanca Gonzalez. (photo Nathalie Ritzmann)

An interview with Bishop Ruben Tierrablanca Gonzalez, a Mexican friar minor aged 63, who has been Apostolic Vicar of Latin Catholics in Istanbul for just three months. Profile of a small Church.

Just over three months ago, on 11th June, Bishop Ruben Tierrablanca Gonzalez, 63, started his ministry as Apostolic Vicar in Istanbul, on the eve of a particularly tormented period for Turkey and already marked by a long series of bloody terrorist attacks. “Despite everything, there have not been any problems for the local Church, even though the state of emergency is worrying us,” the Mexican friar minor explains to us and who has already been in Turkey for over a decade as responsible for the international Community of friars minor for dialogue, always in Istanbul. He recently accepted answering some questions we asked him to help us understand better the commitment of the Catholic Church today in Turkey.

Bishop Tierrablanca, when did you receive the news of your appointment as new apostolic vicar of Istanbul? Were you expecting it or did it come as a surprise?
I knew that the new bishop of our apostolic vicariate of Istanbul was to be appointed, but as far as I was concerned, I did not think that the consultations and even less so the appointment involved me. By tradition, Istanbul if a see which has had European apostolic administrators and bishops; the Bishops’ Conference of Turkey is part of the Assembly of European Conferences, I do not know whether at present there are any non-European bishops in Europe. In any case, I am now at the service of the local Church of Istanbul and the Lord, who has called me to serve, will support me.

What is the situation of the vicariate today? How many prises, religious men and women are there? Of what orders and congregations?
Our apostolic vicariate has 34 priests, almost all religious; there is only one diocesan priest. The religious institutes represented are: Agostinians of the Assumption, Dominicans, Franciscans of the various families (Friars Minor, Conventuals and Capuchins), Jesuits, Cristo Redentor Institute (Identes), Priests of the Mission (Lazzarists) and a priest from the Movimento dei Focolari. There are about forty female religious, belonging to different religious institutes: Daughters of Charity (of St Vincent de Paul), Little Sisters of the Poor, Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception of Ivrea, Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart (called of Gemona), one of the Ordo Virginum and consecrated lay brothers and sisters of the Focolari Movement and from an Austrian institution.

And the lay faithful?
There are about 15 or 16 thousand lay faithful, most of them foreigners. There are also some Turkish Catholics. We have to remember that the Catholic Church in Turkey has communities of different Oriental rites: Armenians, Syriacs and Chaldeans. Recently, due to immigration from Eastern Europe, there are also Ukrainian Catholics of the Byzantine rite.

What are the priorities and the emergencies of the Catholic Church in Istanbul?
Identifying priorities and emergencies for the vicariate of Istanbul implies making choices based on the point of view of who is speaking. In my opinion, we urgently need to create together a pastoral project that meets our needs as an ecclesiastical minority which lives together with the Churches of the Orient and other Churches and ecclesiastical communities of the Reform and Protestantism, and all this in a Muslim-majority country. We have excellent relations with the Christians of the other Churches, and this makes us hope to take an ecclesiastical path together, letting us be guided by the Holy Spirit.

What about the state of relations with the sister Churches? Will the friendship between Pope Francis and Bartholomew also help dialogue at the grassroots?
The ecumenical relations are very encouraging and the fraternal friendship of the Pope and Bartholomew I, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, drives us to continue in the search for unity in Christ. The commitment that I have taken on in my episcopal ministry is emphasized by the motto chosen: Unum in Cristo. We also have relations of true friendship with the Patriarchate of the Apostolic Armenians of Istanbul and with the metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox.

Are there problems in the vicariate regarding the relations with the Muslim majority? Are there any examples of dialogue?
In Turkey and concretely in Istanbul, the Muslims have always been used to living in peace with Christians. At times the statements on the rivalry of religions, especially coming from abroad can damage these relations, but in the thirteen years of my service in Istanbul we have created good relations with our Muslim brothers and promoted interreligious dialogue both with Islam and with our elder brothers of Judaism. Now we have to respect the state of emergency declared by the government. However, our presence and service in the Catholic Church aims to build bridges and peaceful and fraternal relations in the respect of all religions and Christian confessions.

The situation of the Near East has a great impact on Turkey. How is the local Church moving and how does it react to the need to support those fleeing from war?
When the immigrants and refugees from Iraq arrived and then the great mass of Syrians who are fleeing the war, the Catholic Church reacted with substantial help, but which was not well organized. It was more of a response to the emergency without coordination of the parties. At the moment, the organization of Caritas in the three local Catholic churches of the Latin rite is improving. The communities of the Oriental rite are also working more energetically for the needs that increase day by day. In the ecumenical collaboration there is an organization promoted by American Protestants where the director of the association is a lay Catholic consecrated person and we, members of the different Churches and Parishes, collaborate with them.

What is the situation after the coup in July? Are there problems for the local Church?
The situation in Turkey after the coup is the one we all know through the accounts in the media. People are gradually recovering from the fear caused by the armed intervention, but the concern remains for terrorism. So far there has not been any direct consequence for the Catholic Church due to these sad events; we all have to respect the state of emergency; to avoid misunderstandings, we are waiting for the current difficulties to be solved and we can have more clarity in the future. However, the pastoral activities and attention to the people in our Churches and the ecumenical relations with the other Churches are continuing without any problems.

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