EFES, Turkey (Reuters) - With his visit to a tiny stone house in this southwestern corner of Turkey, Pope Benedict joined millions of pilgrims — Christian and Muslim — who have honored the spot as the place where the Virgin Mary died.
But evidence for the claim is thin. In fact, the strongest argument comes from a 19th century German mystic nun whose writings provided the most contested scenes in Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ.”
Celebrating mass for about 200 people crowded in among the olive trees next to “Mary’s House,” Benedict did not say whether Mary actually did move here from Jerusalem sometime after her son Jesus was crucified in about the year 30 AD.
Instead, respecting Christian tradition, he simply called Ephesus — the ancient Greek name for the area — “a city blessed by the presence of Mary Most Holy” and focused on theological questions rather than historical facts.
Liam O’Sullivan, a 62-year-old Irishman who says Mary cured his leukemia here five years ago, said the historical facts were far less important to him than the miracle he says saved him.
“I believe she helped me,” O’Sullivan, who now lives in the area, told Reuters after the mass here. “I got a five-year extension on my life and that has to be worth something.”
Despite her central role in Christianity, there are no first-hand records of what Mary did after she was mentioned early in the Acts of the Apostles following Christ’s death.
The first mention of her possible presence in Ephesus, a major city of the Roman Empire where Saint Paul preached and wrote epistles, came when an ecumenical council there in 431 said Saint John had taken her there after Christ’s death.
The link seems plausible, since Jesus entrusted his mother to John’s care while on the cross, and historians know that John moved to the city to escape persecution in Jerusalem.
But other traditions common in the early centuries of the Church say Mary died in the Holy Land. Ancient writings place her tomb in Jerusalem and churches were built to mark her final resting place in Gethsemane, on Mount Sion and Mount Olivet.
The dogma that Mary was raised bodily into heaven after her death adds to the difficulty of locating her grave.
Ephesus got its crucial boost in the late 19th century when some French priests read an obscure book by the German mystic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich about visions showing Mary’s house.
Emmerich described the house in such detail that the priests looked for it and found a ruin where she said it would be.
“The basic configuration of the ruin conformed almost exactly to Sister Emmerich’s description,” wrote Donald Carroll in his book on the house. After numerous checks, the Catholic Church declared it a pilgrimage site in 1896.
Emmerich is better known today for her vision of the death of Christ, which director Mel Gibson included in his Passion film to add bloody scenes not recounted in the four Gospels.
The Vatican was not dissuaded by the controversy about the film. Pope John Paul II put Emmerich on the path to sainthood by beatifying her in October 2004.