In a poignant and pinnacle gesture that evokes the image of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, Pope Francis and Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, prayed together Sunday inside the Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also known the Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis) for Eastern Christians.
In a poignant and pinnacle gesture that evokes the image of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, Pope Francis and Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, prayed together Sunday inside the Jerusalem Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also known the Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis) for Eastern Christians. It is a church divided yet united, and in its own way it symbolizes the centuries-old Catholic-Orthodox schism.
In commemoration of the embrace exchanged by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople 50 years ago on the Mount of Olives, Francis and Bartholomew I hugged one another in the communal courtyard outside of the 12th century church.
The meeting “presents a providential occasion to reflect on the depth and the authenticity of our existing bonds,” the leaders said in a joint declaration.
Just after 8pm, the Francis and Bartholomew reached the square in front of the church from opposite sides. The leaders of two churches divided for centuries and often at odds met in the center, entered the church arm in arm. They held on to each other, helping one another down the slippery stone steps leading into the site where six Christian denominations practice their faith, but occasionally come to blows as they jealously guard their turf and hours of worship.
Before arriving to the church, the Pope and Patriarch met privately at the Vatican’s representative office in Jerusalem, where the two leaders spent more than an hour together, twice as long as scheduled. The result of the extended meeting is a signed common declaration (click here for the full text) calling for “communion in legitimate diversity” between their Churches.
At the beginning of the service, the Pope and the Patriarch knelt and prayed together before the stone of unction, a limestone slab traditionally held to be where Jesus’s dead body was anointed for burial after the crucifixion. Then Francis, appearing fatigued from the intense journey, together with Bartholomew participated in common prayer with representatives of the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic Churches, which share custody of the building.
It was an extraordinary event since members of the three communities usually observe a strict separation when praying inside the church. Representatives of other churches present in the Holy Land — including Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, Anglican and Lutheran archbishops — also participated in the ecumenical celebration.
Later, the Pope and Patriarch entered the small wood building, the aedicule, containing Jesus’s tomb. After kneeling before it and kissing it, they climbed a stairway to Mount Calvary to light candles at the site of the crucifixion, following in the footsteps of their predecessors Paul VI and Athenagoras, the two men who turned the page in the history of ecumenical relations.
Following the greeting by Theophilus III, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, both Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis gave their historic addresses.
“It is with awe, emotion and respect that we stand before ‘the place where the Lord lay,’ the life-giving tomb from which life emerged. And we offer glory to the all-merciful God, who rendered us, His unworthy servants, worthy of this supreme blessing to become pilgrims in the place where the mystery of the world’s salvation transpired,” Bartholomew said in English.
Bartholomew’s speech brought into focus three points. “The first and greatest message from this empty Sepulcher” is that life triumphs over death,” the Patriarch said. Especially considering the context of the moment, Bartholomew emphasized that "history cannot be programmed; that the ultimate word in history does not belong to man, but to God.” The tomb guards, the massive stone blocking the entryway, were all in vain, the Patriarch said, once again calling on a metaphor as a symbol of the warming relations between the Churches. “The long-term strategies of the world’s powerful – everything is eventually contingent upon the judgment and will of God. Every effort of contemporary humanity to shape its future alone and without God constitutes vain conceit."
And as Francis has repeatedly emphasized on his Holy Land trip, Bartholomew urged understanding and acceptance. “This sacred Tomb invites us to shed another fear that is perhaps the most prevalent in our modern age: namely, fear of the other, fear of the different, fear of the adherent of another faith, another religion, or another confession,” Bartholomew said.
“Racial and all other forms of discrimination are still widespread…what is worst is that they frequently even permeate the religious life of people. Religious fanaticism already threatens peace in many regions of the globe, where the very gift of life is sacrificed on the altar of religious hatred….the message of the life-giving Tomb is urgent and clear: love the other, the different other, the followers of other faiths and other confessions. Love them as your brothers and sisters. Hatred leads to death, while love “casts out fear” (1 John 4.18) and leads to life,” Bartholomew said.
Pope Francis, who during the course of celebration reciprocated frequent gestures of affection from Bartholomew, spoke with a voice tinged with emotion — a tone that strengthened with confidence as he spoke.
“In this Basilica, which all Christians regard with the deepest veneration, my pilgrimage in the company of my beloved brother in Christ, His Holiness Bartholomaios, now reaches its culmination,” Francis said.
“It is an extraordinary grace to be gathered here in prayer. The empty tomb, that new garden grave where Joseph of Arimathea had reverently placed Jesus’ body, is the place from which the proclamation of the resurrection begins. This proclamation, confirmed by the testimony of those to whom the risen Lord appeared, is the heart of the Christian message, faithfully passed down from generation to generation…. This is the basis of the faith which unites us, whereby together we profess that Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father and our sole Lord.”
In the crowded basilica, Pope Francis and Bartholomew’s eyes met often. Francis did not hide his occasional difficulty, but continued on in the knowledge that surprises happen and that hope and faith can move mountains.
“Clearly we cannot deny the divisions, which continue to exist among us, the disciples of Jesus: this sacred place makes us even more painfully aware of how tragic they are. We know that much distance still needs to be travelled before we attain that fullness of communion which can also be expressed by sharing the same Eucharistic table, something we ardently desire; yet our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyze our progress.
And speaking with great emphasis he continued. “We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed. This will be a grace of resurrection, of which we can have a foretaste even today. Every time we ask forgiveness of one another for our sins against other Christians and every time we find the courage to grant and receive such forgiveness, we experience the resurrection!”
The pontiff, reflecting on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995) reiterated the hope “already expressed by my predecessors for a continued dialogue with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all.”
“Let us put aside the misgivings we have inherited from the past and open our hearts to the working of the Holy Spirit… in order to hasten together towards that blessed day when our full communion will be restored,” he urged.
The ecumenical celebration was punctuated with numerous moments and acts that are already being dubbed as historical, from the common recitation of the Our Father, the entry of Pope Francis and Bartholomew in the chapel of the tomb, the image as the two men knelt in prayer in front of the Stone Sepulcher. These moments and others like them exuded great strength and spiritual significance. As with Peter and Andrew in front of the mystery of the death and resurrection of their master, the two leaders called out through their united gestures for the world to believe.
The loving embrace in Jerusalem, in the name of Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras, is now destined to touch the hearts of believers all over the world. And the difficult, but feasible exercise shows the world that by searching and through love, unity can be found. As Bartholomew reminded, looking straight into the eyes of his friend Francesco: "No other way leads to life except the way of love, reconciliation, genuine peace and fidelity to the Truth."
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