While we were visiting Turkey recently, we followed in the footsteps of Popes Leo XIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI to the place reputed to be the last home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is now a small stone chapel on Mount Koressos near the ancient town of Ephesus. The chapel was erected on the original foundation of a structure said to have been the house that the apostle John constructed for the Blessed Mother.
The history of this place is too complicated for me to repeat here, but one might say that it begins with the episode reported in the Gospel of John in which Jesus, from the cross, tells the apostle, “There is your mother,” and the narrative adds that from that moment John took Mary “into his home.” From that exchange and the fairly reliable tradition that John was banished by Roman authorities to Patmos in Greece, many have surmised that he brought Mary with him and settled her on the mountainside, away from Romans and other troublemakers. Residents of a nearby village have believed that for centuries, and they have venerated the spot as Mary’s last home.
The weight of expert opinion on subjects like this, however, leans toward the idea that Mary spent her last years in Jerusalem and was buried there on a spot now marked by the Church of the Dormition. The Vatican has approved the chapel near Ephesus as a place for Catholic devotion—witness the visits by four popes—but the Church has not taken a position on the authenticity of the site.
Clearly, the crowd we found at the chapel was not concerned about this controversy. They—and we—were part of a constant stream of pilgrims who find their way to “Mary’s house” where they are ushered through the single room in a matter of moments. It takes so much effort to get there, and it’s over so quickly, that some might wonder if it’s worth it.
Perhaps that question answers itself, at least for those who are motivated by devotion to the mother of the Savior. Perhaps it is enough that they take time out on their journeys to find this remote spot where, in their hearts, they are close to Mary.
As the visitors stand in the long queue, they naturally chat with members of their own parties and with strangers. We did that too, striking up a conversation with a young couple from Piscataway. Imagine! We’re from Whitehouse Station, and they’re from Piscataway, and we meet in this place, five thousand miles away. Yet, considering the attraction, spending a moment, in our hearts, in the intimate surroundings of Mary’s home, perhaps such meetings are inevitable.
As folks finally reach the entrance to the chapel, they stop chatting. There is a hush as they step into the room almost gingerly, as though afraid to break something. Most touch the stones, assuring themselves that they are really there. Most, in their own ways, may have something to say to the Blessed Mother.
Did Mary live here? Whether or not she did, her love for us and our love for her was enough to bring us to this mountain, to leave the world outside even briefly, and to pray, “Hail Mary, full of grace!”