By Father Michael W. Panicali
Over the recent Corpus Christi weekend, I had an opportunity to accompany a buddy of mine on a whirlwind, three- and-a-half-day trip to Istanbul, Turkey, where the wonderful beauty, charm, culture, and friendly, pious people that make up this ancient city, famously once known and established by Roman emperor Constantine the Great as Constantinople, left a lasting impression on me — the over 900 photos and six videos in my phone from Istanbul lay claim to this. My awe of this ancient city was tempered at times, however, by my inability to come upon a church, in what was once the capital of the Christian eastern Roman Empire.
For Corpus Christi Sunday Mass, I was told of a Catholic church that would require some travel by metro but opted instead to celebrate Mass on my own in my hotel room, which happened to be within a few-minute walk of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, where I would head later that day. Now a breathtaking mosque, the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine architectural masterpiece, was historically built by the Roman emperor Justinian in the 6th century as the Christian patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople.
Visiting the Hagia Sofia that Sunday meant that I would be entering a once-great shrine of Christendom, on the Sunday the Church devotes special attention to the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ, and where the Eucharist is no longer celebrated or housed. My amazement was met with a good deal of sadness as I entered and took in the 1,500-year-old edifice and saw the scant reminders of its Christian roots. Among the few lasting images of its Christian heritage is the glorious depiction of Justinian and Empress Theodora presenting gifts to the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child, within the ceiling mosaic upon entering the vestibule.
Steps into the mosque, eyes gravitate to some strategically-placed windows, where I imagine that a tabernacle must have been, and where all of the liturgical action was likely directed — where the Eucharist would have been celebrated. On a nearby street corner, within walk- ing distance of the Hagia Sofia, stands a pillar which Constantine had brought over from Rome, upon which a Cross no longer stands, as it once did. Seeing this, too, brought mixed emotions.
I genuinely was longing for a deeper religious experience that Corpus Christi Sunday — and today’s Gospel reinforces that we as Catholics can, and should, have a deep, otherworldly experience every time we enter a house of the Eucharist — because God desires this for us. He desires to give us all we can take in and experience of His Presence.
Jesus so beautifully tells us in today’s Gospel, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Elijah was strengthened for his lengthy and difficult journey in the first reading from the Book of Kings, by the physical food sent from Heaven.
As does so consistently throughout the Old Testament, what will be brought to its fruition by Christ is foreshadowed here — the Eucharist, the Bread of Angels, which will satisfy our spiritual hunger and will feed us on our journey to super- natural, heavenly life. It is THIS bread that Jesus speaks of, His Body, which sadly the people of His day fail to connect with the food that fed Elijah.
The void I felt that Corpus Christi Sunday in the Hagia Sofia made me appreciate this sacred gift of the Eucharistic Presence of Christ available to us in a genuinely renewed sense. Our churches are not simply shrines to Almighty God; they are edifices in which we can sublimely and miraculously encounter and receive the Living God.
While I enjoyed great food, Turkish coffee and tea, and one too many pieces of Turkish Delight, in the lens of my Catholicism, my brief time in the enchanting city of Istanbul left me with a renewed thankfulness for my Catholicism, the Blessed Sacrament, and how our churches are not mere places of worship, but how they house Almighty God Himself. There is no more sacred ground, really, than in the Catholic church that might be just next door to you.
Readings for Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus: 16:2-4, 12-15 Ephesians: 4:17, 20-24 John: 6:24-35
Father Panicali is the parochial vicar for St. Mark-St. Margaret Mary Parish, Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, and local chaplain of Rosary for Life.