The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Smyrna
Among the seven churches of the Book of Revelation, the current Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Evangelist is the only one still in existence. Here the Christian community, founded by John the Apostle, has its home and spiritual center to this day. This church is also the most impressive and most important Catholic worship place of Asian Turkey, since it is the seat of the Metropolitan Archbishop.
The Christian Community of Smyrna is one of the oldest in the world. Within the jurisdiction of the historic Catholic Archdiocese, Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Timothy, John and Philip preached the Gospel. In this same area there are also the tombs of the Apostle John in Ephesus, and Philip in Ierapolis (current Pammukkale).
According to ancient and trustworthy sources, the Apostle John lived in Ephesus during the last years of his life and died there. The remains of his tomb are still visible in the ruins of the great Byzantine Basilica in Selcuk. Tradition considers John the founder of the Church of Smyrna, and surely the first Christian community knew him and had him as a point of reference.
The most ancient and evident testimony of this bond between John and the community of Smyrna is given in the Book of Revelation. Here the Risen Lord Jesus, through the Apostle John, addresses seven letters to the seven Churches of the ancient Roman province of Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea. Those Christian communities had received the Gospel from John or were spiritually related to him. In the second of these seven messages, Jesus addresses the bishop of the Church of Smyrna by the order through John: “To the angel (i.e. the bishop) of the church in Smyrna, write this: The first and the last, who once died but came to life, says this: “I know your tribulation and poverty, but you are rich. I know the slander of those who claim to be Jews and are not, but rather are members of the assembly of Satan. Do not be afraid of anything that you are going to suffer. Indeed, the devil will throw some of you into prison that you may be tested, and you will face an ordeal for ten days. Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor shall not be harmed by the second death.” (Rev. 2, 8-11).
About the year 107 AD, the church of Smyrna, with its young bishop Polycarp, a disciple of John, welcomed the great bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who was being led in chains to Rome where he would suffer martyrdom. In the year 156 AD, the same Polycarp, after a long episcopate and a holy life, gave the supreme witness through his martyrdom at the city’s theater in the Agora, not far from the Cathedral.
Much later, as a consequence of the Islamic conquest of Asia Minor, during the 14th – 17th centuries, the succession of the Catholic bishops of Smyrna had become only titular as no bishop could reside here. During the 17th through 19th Centuries there was the presence of an Apostolic Vicariate for the local Catholic community. Finally in 1818, Pope Pius VII restored the ancient Catholic Archdiocese of Smyrna with his Bull Apostolatus Officium.
Thus the Catholic community felt the need to have a church in which the bishop could put his “Cathedra” (i.e. the bishop’s chair), the sign of his authority as pastor and master. Traditionally the church that holds the bishop’s chair (in Latin “Cathedra”) is called “Cathedral” and is the most important church in a diocese. After the re-establishment of the archdiocese, the church of Santa Maria (Akdeniz Mah., Konak – Izmir) was chosen as the temporary Cathedral. This church, built in the 18th Century, was officiated by the Franciscan Friars.
In 1857, the Archbishop Antonio Mussabini, a native of Izmir, acquired land for the purpose of initiating the construction of the Cathedral. Msgr. Mussabini had been apostolic delegate to Constantinople and there he had a close friendship with Ottoman Sultan Abdul Aziz Kahn. Thanks to this bond of friendship, the Sultan not only allowed the building of the Cathedral, but donated 11,000 Lire gold for this purpose. While everything was ready for construction, the death of Msgr. Mussabini interrupted this project, and the praiseworthy Archbishop was temporarily buried in the church of Santa Maria. His successor, Archbishop Vincenzo Spaccapietra, finally blessed the first building stone on November 25, 1862.
Construction work lasted for 12 years and saw the direct and generous involvement of the Catholic community of Smyrna as evidenced by many epigraphs of the benefactors. On June 14, 1874 the Archbishop Spaccapietra consecrated the Cathedral, dedicated to St. John the Apostle, founder of the Church of Smyrna.
The building, austere and elegant, is in neoclassical style. It is located on the site of the ancient city’s port. The remains of the Hellenistic-Roman harbors are located below the buildings in front of the Cathedral. From this port the first evangelizers embarked to announce the Gospel. From this place Ignatius of Antioch departed to meet his martyrdom in Rome.
The Blessed Pope Pius IX donated to the Cathedral the main altar. In order to strengthen the spiritual bond with the seat of the Apostle Peter in Rome, in the same year (1874) Pope Pius IX wanted to honor the Cathedral of St. John with the title of Pontifical Basilica and granted the same privileges as the Basilica of St. John in Lateran, (Rome) the Pope’s Cathedral. As a sign of gratitude, the Archdiocese of Lyon, France – which had received the Gospel in the 2nd Century by St. Irenaeus, a son of the Church of Smyrna – wanted to contribute to the construction and donated the 14 stations of the Via Crucis, the precious French paintings of the XIXth Century. During the following years, the church was adorned with fine paintings, stained glass windows, marble altars, and interesting statues. The bishop’s palace and the diocesan Curia rose nearby the Cathedral.
The community of Smyrna wanted to dedicate to the two founding archbishops, two precious marble monuments, located in the churchyard. Unfortunately, these monuments have recently been vandalized by fanatics, assuming that these statues were idols. The surviving statues are currently placed inside the narthex and represent a bust of Msgr. Mussabini and allegories of Faith and Prayer.
In the crypt below the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament are the tombs of several Archbishops of Smyrna: besides Msgr. Mussabini Msgr. Spaccapietra, there are the tombs of the Archbishop Msgr. Andrea Timoni, (during whose episcopate was found the house of Our Lady in Ephasus), and the Archbishop Msgr. Domenico Marengo.
The entire complex of the Cathedral suffered serious damage during the Turkish War of Independence. (1922 – 1925) In the great fire of 1922 the church was extensively damaged and the Archbishop’s palace, the curia, the catechetical halls, and the various facilities of the Archdiocese were destroyed and lost forever.
Prior to 1925, Catholics in Izmir numbered about 15,000. There were numerous colleges led by various religious congregations such as the Lasallians, Lazzarists, Jesuits, Salesians, and Mechitarists, while female schools were led by Sisters of Charity and Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion. Equally important, there were Catholic hospitals, including the French Hospital (currently Devlet Hastanesi) and the St. Rocco Hospital, linked to the Franciscan Friars and led by lay personnel. The Archbishop was assisted by a large diocesan clergy and numerous religious orders: Franciscans, Capuchins, Dominicans, Salesians, Lazzarists, Jesuits, and Mechitarists. After the ruinous fire of 1922, this lively presence started an inexorable decline.
The city was extensively devastated, and all Catholic churches were damaged and vandalized. On that occasion the precious stained-glass windows of the Cathedral, made in Paris by the artist Paul Gaudin in 1901, were destroyed: only one survives and is located to the right of the Joseph altar. This church, having survived destruction and fires during the birth of modern Turkey, is today witness to the many sufferings experienced by this city during the last century.
In order to preserve the Cathedra, the Archbishop Msgr. Joseph Descuffi agreed in 1965 to the rental of the church by the United States Military community to be used as a military chapel. Therefore, during the last fifty years, the Cathedral was used almost exclusively by the U.S. military which provided for its upkeep. Over time though, military security measures prevented the local population and pilgrims from visiting this sacred place. In addition, the mingling between Catholic Church and foreign military was perceived as a scandal by the local population and used to justify the prejudice that the Catholic Church is a foreign body to Turkish society.
In order to overcome this prejudice, in 2013 the Archdiocese of Smyrna cancelled the contract with the U.S. military. As a result, this sacred building, masterpiece of faith and art located in the heart of the city of Izmir, is newly accessible to all and becomes a sign of peace and reconciliation. After a delicate restoration of the structure, on September 29, 2013, St. John’s Cathedral Basilica was returned to local worship and has become the common patrimony of the entire city of Izmir.
The solemn celebration of the reopening of the Cathedra was attended by three bishops, Msgr. Mariano Crociata, Secretary General of the Episcopal Italian Conference, Msgr. Salvatore Visco, Archbishop of Capua, and Msgr. Gennaro Pascarella, Bishop of Pozzouli; they testified to the solidarity of the universal Church with the small and martyr Christian Community living in Turkey. Since September 14, 2012, the Cathedral was entrusted to an Italian priest, fidei donum of the diocese of Ariano Irpino (Italy), who took care for the restoration and reopening of the church.
During its centuries-old history, the Cathedral welcomed Pope St. John XXIII, as apostolic delegate, during his frequent visits to Smyrna, and the Blessed Pope Paul VI, –the first Pope to have visited Turkey – who solemnly celebrated the Eucharist on July 26, 1967. The portraits of these two saint Popes are located in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and in the chapel of St. Joseph.
In 2014, the diocese of Isernia, Italy, through its bishop, Msgr. Salvatore Visco, offered the impressive statue of St. John the Evangelist which now stands in the cathedral’s churchyard. It commemorates the now old Apostle in the act of receiving the inspiration of the Book of the Apocalypse. This bronze work was made by the Italian sculptor Battist Marello and is 4 meters high and weighs 700 kgs. The monument seeks to be a tribute to the Apostle who founded the seven Churches of Asia in the very places where he preached the Gospel. This important monument was blessed by His Holiness, Pope Francis during his pastoral visit to the diocese of Isernia, before its arrival at its Izmir location.
On December 27, 2016 the Archbishop Msgr. Lorenzo Piretto consecrated the new altar, made of precious marble containing the relics of St. John and other Apostles and Evangelists, to emphasize the apostolic origins of the Church of Smyrna. As a sign of communion with the church of Rome, the altar also contains a fragment of the tomb of the Apostle Peter.
Heir to the testimony of Apostle John, the current Christian community of Smyrna, though small in number, is called to live and witness the Gospel of Love among our Muslim brothers. In the grand frame clerestory of the central nave, the message of the first letter of St. John, which is the heart of the Christian faith, is displayed: “Let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love”. (1 John 4: 7-8) This Cathedral is called to proclaim the Gospel of Love in the places where John lived and preached.