Pope Francis has reiterated the hope already expressed by his predecessors for a continued dialogue with all Christians.
Speaking on Sunday evening during a prayer service held with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and other Christian leaders in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the Pope lamented the “tragic” divisions between Christians and said our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyse our progress towards unity.
As Philippa Hitchen reports from Jerusalem, the Pope and the Patriarch met privately before the ecumenical celebration, and signed a common declaration pledging to continue along the path towards full unity between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Symbolic gestures can sometimes speak louder than words to capture the imagination and show how change is possible, even in seemingly impossible situations. It was the historic embrace of a Catholic Pope and an Orthodox Patriarch, fifty years ago, that captured the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and showed millions of Christians around the world that hatred and divisions have no place in the hearts of those who follow the Risen Lord.
And it was that same gesture of friendship and reconciliation between the current successors of St Peter and St Andrew, in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre here in Jerusalem, which captured the spirit of this papal visit to revive the search for unity between followers of all the different Christian churches.
As several people have remarked to me here, if Christian unity had depended only on the will and determination of Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras half a century ago, that goal might already have been achieved. But as Pope Francis noted in his words to the other Christian leaders gathered around the tiny, ornate chapel housing the empty tomb inside the basilica, “much distance still needs to be travelled” before all divisions are overcome and Christians can share together around the same Eucharistic table.
Yet the very fact of these heads of over a dozen different Churches, with their distinctive vestments and varied styles of worship, praying together in the place where Christianity began, is an unprecedented event. Don’t forget this is a place which has witnessed some very un-Christian scenes of squabbling over who has control of the holy places that recall Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection from the dead. The organisers of the trip told us it’s taken the most delicate and determined negotiations between Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenians, the three principle parties of the Status Quo regulating the holy sites here, to ensure the historic encounter could run smoothly.
Don’t be afraid, the first disciples were told as they gazed into the empty tomb on the first Easter Sunday. But as Patriarch Bartholomew noted in this homily before the shared prayer and joint blessing, fear is still an all too prevalent emotion in our modern age: fear of those who are different from ourselves, fear of followers of another faith and fear feeding religious fanaticism that threatens peace in many regions of the globe.
That’s why gestures of friendship like this are so important to combat fear and spread a different message of trust, forgiveness and cooperation between peoples of different religious traditions. In their joint declaration, signed in the Apostolic Delegation where Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras first met 50 years ago, Francis and Bartholomew point to the important progress that’s already been made in the ecumenical journey. But they also spell out some of the key areas where Catholics and Orthodox must work and witness more closely together in service of the common good – defending the family, fighting poverty, protecting God’s gift of creation and upholding the right of all people to publically profess their religious convictions.
Most people, of course, don’t know or care much about the complex theology or long history of divisions that have kept Orthodox and Catholics apart for almost a millennium. But what they will see on their TVs, tablets and telephones however is a powerful and plain speaking image of two friends embracing, praying and sharing a simple meal together. They can’t work the miracle of unity on their own either. But they can and do model the humility, courage and trust in the Spirit that will encourage others to join the ecumenical journey and ensure that one day the scandal of division will be overcome.
To live by faith means to put our lives in the hands of God, especially in our most difficult moments.