by Burak Özdoğan
Overture: the Magnet and the Old Man
“Who is that man, Burak?” Marcela, Misa’s mother, asked me in a curious tone of voice…. A grandmother in her sixties, sitting in the armchair with a cup of Turkish coffee, squinting her eyes, and pointing her index finger to my fridge, “That man, Burak; with the black cap; who is he? ”
“Oh! That man?”
Maybe my eyebrows raised; and it could be that a smile appeared on my face; a soft, warm and a deep smile. The sound of a passing-by tram -painted into bright red colour, a typical one in Prague- was echoing outside the open window. I gazed the portrait of the old guy on the magnet plate- the old guy with a humble and wise look on his face under a candle light- and I could only say:
“That maaan iiis …”
My mind was already being teleported 1500 kilometres away, to Istanbul and my thoughts travelled back in time about a decade ago, to 2006… to the little flat close to Bosporus where I used to live with Misa, whom I had recently married….
“Come on Burak! You do not have to be nervous “she said, almost laughing at me, “Just relax!”
“I really don’t know… I really don’t know Misa; what am I going to talk with a priest?! A priest!”
I had never met a priest in my life face to face. When someone said the word ‘priest’ what was visualized in my mind was a composition of puzzle pieces I obtained mainly from Hollywood movies and from the Turkish media. And not surprisingly, as a person grown up in a Muslim country within a – very open minded – Muslim family, to have a priest at home visiting us for a coffee, was an extreme milestone for me!
And then the doorbell rang…
I was standing behind Misa as she was opening the door. In my imagination, movie frames was passing one by one, like: The door opens, and a man appears with a long beard on his serious face; dressed in a long black frock, a big heavy iron cross hanging on his neck, surrounded by a smoke that rises from that swinging incense burner he holds, and greets us very formally…
“Buongiooorno!” Buongiorno? But… The guy did not at all look like the priest I had in my mind! Dressed simple but nicely; having a happy face with a very warm smile on it that is contagious; eyes full of light that gives comfort… And also no smoke rising from an incense burner but an aura of a friendship surrounding his existence. “Buongiorno!” replied Misa loudly, “Come in C.! Come in…”
Yeah… This is how I met for the first time C. a classmate of my Czech wife from the Turkish language school at that time, who was to become one of the few best friends in my life in the following years.
That day was a turning point in many ways. He was a priest… but he was singing songs! Whenever he heard a nice melody he would not hesitate to accompany it-and he was doing it really by heart! He was a priest but he would make jokes at the best time! He was a priest but he had a great sense of humor; whenever he laughed, he did it from the bottom of his heart…. How could it be possible! Was not that too ‘cool’ to be expected from a priest? He had been sent to Istanbul to deepen interreligious dialogue with Islam. Hmm… maybe… But maybe he was one of those people we hear from the media, a proselytizer, who approaches you through the right channel to convert you into Christianity in the end. It was all but a strategy! Even my mom had to need to warn me when I told her about C.: “Watch out, my son!”
However all those ‘conspiracy theories’ collapsed soon and proved to be ‘bullshit,’ once I realized that my priest friend would never open a topic regarding religion unless I opened it.
I do not exactly remember what was the first question I asked was; but he never refused to answer and never discouraged me to ask freely. I asked, he answered. And we discussed… Our question-and-answer based deep dialogs gave me the opportunity to fill my knowledge gaps on Christianity –and widen my thoughts on God. As a person who has grown up in an Islam dominant culture within a – very open minded – Muslim family who ended up as a deist, I got motivation to re-read the Holy Bible once again. And this time having a resource-wise advantage: A great priest friend always ready to accept any sort of questions… (A friend also who did not leave me any other option than re-defining the image of a ‘priest’ I had in my mind.)
I have to admit it: Before I met C. I did not know who actually St. Paul was; when C. talked about him, I was impressed with the story behind. Likewise, I had no idea why Jesus was called the “SON” or what actually means the father, the son and the Holy Spirit… And many more elements of Christianity like this, I did not know… I did not know much about neither Franciscans nor Protestants… Just like Vincentians…
“Vincen… what? Sorry C., Vincen… what did you say?”
It had been already some years since we met. Holding our wine glasses in our hands, sitting on the sunny roof of my flat (I climbed out of the window with C.) having the great view of beautiful Prague ahead, hearing Misa running after our baby Denis inside the flat, we were again engaged in one of our typical dialogs.
“Vincen…” For whatever reason it was even hard for me to pronounce the word. “What is that C.?”
He tried to explain me; however, it was too much bookish information probably, or sounded too abstract for me so that my mind ignored to store his explanation and honestly, I did not get the exact point about Vincentians.
Never mind, I said to myself.
The Vincentian Curia in Rome
My first close encounter with Vincentians -except my friend C.- occurred a few years later, in Rome at their General Curia. C. had invited us (Misa, our barely walking one-year-old kid Denis, and myself) as his guests. It was the first time for me in Rome; also, the first time in my life having so many priests and nuns, surrounding me… One, two, three, five, eight… when I counted how many there were, as they were praying before starting breakfast, I realized I was surrounded by lots of religious people gathering around the same meal, brought together from all around the world… Philippines, Poland, US, Italy, Lebanon…. For more than a week, we lived among the Vincentians. We ate together, chat, and watched the news… I was deeply impressed by the hospitality and their friendly approach. To see a priest playing with our small kid was ‘cute’. To see the nuns treating us almost as warmly as my aunts in Turkey was lovely; to see their efforts to communicate with little Denis…
The Hospital of the Child Jesus
Among all the Vincentians I had a chance to meet that week, probably the big ‘hit’ landed on my heart when I met M., C.’s longtime friend who served as chaplain at the hospital of the Child Jesus. The hospital, whose history goes back to 1869, is specialized in the treatment of children coming from not only Rome or Italy, but also from neighboring European countries: it was of course touching to walk through… Right after C. introduced us to M. at his office, someone knocked at the door and a couple came in. I cannot speak Italian; but from the gestures and mimics used by the family, from the silent intonation echoing in the room, from the expressions on the faces… it was obvious that the air was dominated by a deep mercy fed by spiritual thankfulness arising from the hearts.
When C. told me that M. provides a spiritual support especially to the sick children who are in extremely serious conditions and to their families, I was deeply shaken. I could not imagine how this man, M., was able to face such a pain daily basis for the sake of goodness… C. explained to me that what M. doing is part of the elements what Vincentians are focused at. I found myself silently praying for the children all around the world…
The Book on Saint Vincent
“The Life of St. Vincent de Paul. Wow, it is in Turkish!” When C. gave me the book as a present, at St George house in İstanbul, I accepted it with pleasure; I love reading. However when I tried to read it sometime later, I got bored and could not go on. It was not the right time probably. The right time came a few years later in my new flat, where I was living alone as a now divorced man. For no apparent reason I picked it up from the bookshelves. I started to read it but I was not happy with the Turkish translation. I managed to find “The Life of St. Vincent de Paul” in amazon.com, the free Kindle version. I started reading, with the desire of learning about this man. Page after page I found myself in a novel-like story…. Going back to 1580s… Imagining the little Vincent de Paul’s running in the meadows after this sheep… Visualizing the Turkish pirates –yes, our guys! J- of that day, capturing the young Vincent de Paul… sold as a slave… forced to prove his capabilities by carrying loads at the slave market in front of customers… bought by an angler then sold to an alchemist, then to another master… his influence on his last master and their adventurous journey back to France… When I read him dedicating his life to sick and bed-ridden people, I had a smile on my lips. Then the Ladies of Charity… his struggle with the politicians… his communication skills and his softening the hard-hearts… his discipline in waking up every day at 4am to pray… and his last word in a September night: “Confido! -I trust!”
When I finished the book, I finally understood what Vincentians are…. Everything is clear… Now, I see St. Vincent de Paul when I think of my friend C., of his understanding and tolerance, of the way he encourages people to ask and the way he builds “trust”. Now, I see St. Vincent de Paul when I think of M., when I think of the tough and amazing work he is doing in that hospital for the children and for their parents –just like St. Vincent De Paul did more than 400 years ago… Now, I see St. Vincent de Paul whenever I think of all those people I met, those lovely nuns, the warm and friendly priests I had the opportunity to meet and talk in the General Curia… For me those people and their actions and behaviors, which I witnessed, are the clearest definition of Vincentians; the Vincentians who are inspired and shaped this way thanks to this amazing person: St Vincent.
Finale: the Magnet and the Old Man
“That old man is St. Vincent De Paul” I said. Both Marcela and I were looking at his portrait on the magnet. “He is the great apostle of Charity; he is the father of the Vincentians”.
“Vincentians?” Marcela replied, “Who are the Vincentians?”
I did my best to explain to her: “Vincentians are…”