The second holiest place on earth
Michael McGuckian SJ is an Irish Jesuit who has been living in Turkey since January 2020. He was asked to go and work with the Jesuits in Ankara, where they are expanding their community with young Jesuits from Asia and Africa joining them.
Michael went on pilgrimage a short while ago, to the city of Ephesus, over 600km away from Ankara, where he visited the House of Mary. The experience made a deep impression on him. You can read why below.
Finding the House of Mary
Recently I went on pilgrimage to Ephesus. It is an ancient city, founded, so the archaeologists say, 12,000 years ago, and it had a part to play in the many Empires that have crossed this amazing land. St Paul came in 50 AD and spent two years, and subsequently wrote a letter to the church there. In 431, the Third Ecumenical Council was held there and defined that Our Lady is the Mother of God.
The part of its history I want to focus on, however, is the part played by Our Lady and St John. The dominant tradition now holds that St John came to Ephesus with Our Lady around 40 AD and she ended her life on earth in the city.
There is no historical evidence to support the story, but the way the House of Mary that we visited was re-discovered is quite fascinating. The city was abandoned in the 15th century and everything became overgrown, but Christians from a nearby town would still go on pilgrimage to a site in the mountain above Ephesus every August 15 to honour Mary, although there was no clear idea as to her connection with the site. That situation changed with the intervention of Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), the Dutch nun, mystic, stigmatist, and visionary, who was beatified by Pope St John Paul II in 2004.
Catherine Emmerich was bed-ridden most of her life and had multiple visions of the lives of Our Lord and Our Lady. She had never been to Ephesus, but her visions of the House of Mary were the basis for the re-discovery of the House at the end of the nineteenth century.
In 1881 a French priest, Abbé Julien Gouyet, discovered a small stone building on a mountain above the city of Ephesus. He believed it was the house described by Catherine Emmerich where Our Lady had spent the last years of her life.
His discovery was not taken seriously, however, but ten years later, two Vincentian priests, Fathers Poulin and Jung, discovered the building again. They discovered that the roofless ruin had been venerated by the Christian villagers from Şirince, 17 km away, who went on pilgrimage on 15 August every year.
The Holy See has taken no official position on the authenticity of the location yet, but in 1951 Pope Pius XII initially declared the house a Holy Place, and Pope John XXIII later made the declaration permanent.
Pope St Paul VI in 1967, Pope St John Paul II in 1979, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 visited the house and treated it as a shrine. Whatever one may think of all that, I was happy to take it that this is where Our Lady was assumed into heaven, which makes it, by my reckoning, the second holiest place on earth, after the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus rose into heaven.
Michael McGuckian SJ