Columbia University

Faculty of Arts and Sciences

On the Papal receipt of The Poor and the Perfect: Five Questions with Neslihan Şenocak

April 13, 2015

In an interesting turn of events this past winter, Associate History Professor, Neslihan Şenocak, found her book in the hands of Pope Francis. Originally from Turkey, and an engineer, Şenocak's path to teach at Columbia was an unconventional, if not destined journey. Underscoring the importance of exposure to scholarship and study outside certain prescribed boundaries, Şenocak describes how an important grant for non-Christians who study Christianity in Rome took her from working as an engineer to studying medieval Franciscan history and eventually to Columbia. 

What events lead up to you settling on the topic of your book?

Neslihan Şenocak: It all started in the fall of 1993 when I was in the last year of my undergraduate study in Industrial Engineering at Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara. One day I picked up The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco—it was my introduction to the medieval Franciscans and St. Francis. The medieval history of the Order, which started up as a religious confraternity bent on a literal imitation of Christ’s life, and their later tribulations, seemed very intriguing to me. Rather coincidentally, that same fall, the neighboring Bilkent University founded a history department, which introduced the very first M.A. and Ph.D. programs in European history in Turkey, alongside those in Ottoman history and American history. This was all thanks to the farsightedness of its then rector, Ali Doğramacı (who is an alumnus of Columbia University) and the founder of the department, Halil Inalcık, a distinguished historian of Ottoman history, who taught at Columbia. In the spring of 1994, just before graduation, I applied to the M.A. program in European history and was accepted. In the fall of that same year, I started an engineering job in a consultancy firm that gave me the flexibility to do the M.A. program. As the topic of my first paper in a medieval history course, I chose the establishment of the Franciscan Order because of my interest in The Name of the Rose. From then on, I was determined to study the Franciscans. My M.A. thesis was on the settlement of the Franciscan Order in England. The English Franciscans were particularly interested in learning, and they managed to establish a culture of theological study within the Order, even though in the Italian beginnings of the Order, friars had pursued a simple, mendicant life with an emphasis on penance and joy of living like Christ.

Can you talk about the grant you received from the papacy to study this topic?

NS: When I was in my second year of the Ph.D. program at Bilkent, one of my European History professors, Cadoc D.A. Leighton, who is a Catholic priest and a canon regular of the Premonstratensian Order, told me that the Vatican had a special grant for non-Christians who study Christianity in Rome, and that he would be happy to recommend me for it. The grant is given by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID), which fosters and supports dialogue between Roman Catholic Christianity, and the members and institutions of other world religions, with the exception of Judaism (the relations with which are governed by another council). I qualified, coming from a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey, and because I wanted to study the medieval Franciscans. However, when Cadoc first told me about the grant, I was hesitant, as I was then also working full-time in Ankara as an engineer. I realized though that I needed more sources to write a good dissertation, so I took an unpaid leave from my job for six months and went to Rome. While in Rome, I enrolled at Pontifical University of the Franciscan Order (Pontificio Ateneo Antonianum) to follow a special diploma program in medieval Franciscan history. Sitting in a classroom filled with Franciscan friars was quite surreal to me. I was often the only woman and the only non-Christian in the class. Seeing that I was dedicated to my research at the Vatican library and in the Franciscan university, PCID decided to renew the grant for two more semesters. There was no way that I could get another year off from my engineering job, so I resigned and stayed on in Rome. The PCID grant, therefore, changed the course of my life and initiated my transition from an engineer to a historian.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCID) was instrumental in connecting you with Daniel Madigan, who subsequently was the one responsible for presenting your book to the Pope. Can you talk more about the importance of that council? And also how Daniel Madigan managed to get your book to the Pope?

NS: One of the conditions of the grant is attendance at monthly meetings at the PCID, which is located close to Vatican. In these meetings, the holders of this grant meet with Roman Catholic priests, who work on interreligious dialogue. The idea is simply to increase the dialogue and friendship between people observing different religions. That is how I met Daniel Madigan. Dan was one of the priests who came to the PCID meetings in 1999-2000, when I was there. He’s a Jesuit priest, but also a renowned scholar of Islam, who did his Ph.D. in Islamic Religion here at Columbia (it is interesting how all the main players in this story are connected to Columbia). He was teaching at the Pontifical Gregorian University (run by the Jesuits), where he founded and directed the Institute for the Study of Religions and Cultures. We ended up becoming good friends and have kept in touch ever since. In December 2014, when he was visiting New York, he mentioned he might meet the Pope the following week, when he would be in Rome for a conference on studying and understanding the religious ‘other’. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind giving the Pope a copy of my book (after all, I received the grant to write my dissertation from the papacy, and my book is on the Franciscans, whose founder’s name the present Pope has taken). Dan agreed, and a week later I received the photo showing him presenting my book to the Pope.

You alluded to earlier that it is rare that people from predominantly Muslim countries write and publish on the history of the Catholic Church. Can you outline that context and describe it in more detail? 

NS: Well, yes, it is very rare. First of all, in many countries outside Western Europe and North America, it is very hard to find instances of Ph.D. study in the history of another country or religion that is not a dominant religion of that country. Even in Europe and North America, academic specialization in the history of the religious ‘other’ is relatively new. To do that, one needs to go abroad. The next major obstacle is to find grants and scholarships, which are not usually available in one’s country of origin; and those that are available in the country of academic interest are highly competitive, as they are usually only for citizens. However, even more important than this, one does not often encounter histories of other cultures and religions early on in life so as to develop a sustained interest in them. Then, there is the sheer difficulty of finding work in one’s country of origin, where most or all history jobs are for national or local history. In my case, there was the added hardship of having to get visas every time I travelled anywhere in Europe for study or research, because Turkish citizens cannot travel to Europe without a visa, a requirement which applies to many other predominantly Muslim countries. As a result, it becomes very rare that someone outside North America and Western Europe finds the opportunity and inclination to study something other than one’s own history. Today, among all the academic scholars of medieval Church history, or even in the larger field of medieval European history, I know no one except myself, who was raised and did their graduate work in a predominantly non-Christian country with the exception of Israel. This lack of opportunity to study the history and culture of another country or region, other than one’s own, is something affecting people in many countries around the world, for which some kind of global affirmative action is needed.

Q&A Compiled by Sabrina Buckwalter