The Pope and the Patriarch
The headlines were many when Pope Francis visited the Holy Land this past May 24-26. It was a pilgrimage of prayer and unity, as he said, a religious event. And, though politics are unavoidable when a world leader visits the Middle East, it was a historic, religious visit, in a political, and even religious, tinderbox. Pope Paul VI, in 1964, had been the first modern pope to visit the Holy Land. During that visit 50 years ago, there was a historic embrace that changed the climate— dramatically—for Christian unity, the embrace of Paul and Athenagoras I, leading patriarch of Orthodox Christianity.
It was the first time the successor of St. Peter had embraced the successor of St. Andrew since before both the pope and the patriarch of 900 years ago had excommunicated each other. (It’s a long story, one that includes the scandalous looting of Constantinople in 1204 by Roman Crusaders.) In those centuries before the 1960s, Catholics were discouraged from stepping foot into other Christian churches. But at Vatican Council II, it was the Orthodox representatives, invited by St. John XXIII, who helped Roman Catholic bishops understand the Church’s early liturgy. That understanding resulted in sweeping changes to the Mass (Liturgies of Word and Eucharist, and much more) that are considered normal today.
Unity of the Roman Catholics with Orthodox Christians has been a big concern of popes since, most memorably, St. John Paul II, who even wrote an encyclical (“That They May Be One”) about it. It was John Paul who called our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters the other lung of the Church (“The Church must breathe with two lungs!”). Now this pope, Francis, a man missing part of a lung, would seek out a way for the Church to breathe more fully.
So Pope Francis went to the Holy Land to celebrate— and to further—1964’s embrace. He prayed with His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built around the sites of Golgotha and the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, scenes of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These two older men (74 and 77, respectively), kindred spirits, had become friends since the papal election. Bartholomew had attended Francis’ inauguration, another historic first. Their kneeling together, nearly prostrate, at the shrine of the anointing of Jesus, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, was itself history. Peter and Andrew hadn’t prayed together at the Holy Sepulchre for a very long time.
Unity beyond Faith
But that event was only one of the headlines of the Holy Father’s visit. A Church leader, after all, cannot step into the Holy Land without creating a political stir. Christians have been leaving Israel and the Palestinian territories in droves, as Israel continues to deepen its grasp on Palestinian land. The promise of 1993’s Oslo Agreement between Israel and Palestine never came to pass. After several meetings of Middle East bishops over the last few years, Pope Francis was there to encourage Christians to stay. The pope, stopping first in Jordan and visiting a UN refugee camp where Palestinians have lived since they were forcibly evicted by Israel in 1947, flew by helicopter directly to Bethlehem, avoiding entering via Israel’s restrictive border crossings. When he got there, he said he was in “Palestine,” a recognition of Palestine’s statehood, one sticky issue for Israel.
While in Bethlehem, he made a Francis-like impromptu stop at the Wall of Separation—a sprawling 26-foot-high containment wall, extending for 43 miles as part of a 430-mile fenced-in barrier around the West Bank (Palestine), nearly complete, built by Israel. There he prayed—a photograph of which was seen worldwide. And he embraced Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Then he made historic appearance after appearance in Israel, some at Christian sites, others at shrines sacred to Judaism and Islam: the Wailing Wall, the grave of Israel’s founding leader Benjamin Herzl, a sobering visit to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, where he wrote in the guestbook, “Never again!! Never again!!” He met at Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock with the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein.
All of it was accented by the presence, throughout, of his two Argentinean friends, Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Muslim leader Omar Abboud.
This writer crossed paths with the papal party at the presidential palace of Nobel Prize winner and then-Israeli-president Shimon Peres. Plans were firmed up there to take advantage of another Francis-like gesture: the previous day’s invitation to Presidents Peres and Abbas and Patriarch Bartholomew to come to the Vatican to pray for peace (they indeed met in the Vatican gardens—see p. 12).
Stalled commuters aside, the mood was electric in both Israel and Palestine.
But, as University of Notre Dame theologian and analyst Candida R. Moss wrote in the Daily Beast, the most important news of the trip was Pope Francis’ meetings with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. They discussed such seemingly mundane things as reestablishing a common date for Easter (to fix a “ridiculous” situation, said Pope Francis), but also signed a historic agreement to work together, both on unity and on such urgent issues as environmental stewardship.
Soon after the Holy Land visit, early talk surfaced in the Vatican press office about their intention to bring Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops together in Iznik, Turkey, site of ancient Nicaea, to commemorate the upcoming (2025) 1700th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea. Nicaea was a foundational Council for the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, one whose creedal agreement, the Nicene Creed, we recite at Eucharist to this day (“We believe in one God, the Father almighty . . .”).
It would be centuries after that council before Roman Catholicism would set its own course apart from the Eastern Churches, in the Great Schism of 1054, whose excommunications of pope and patriarch modern-day Paul and Athenagoras would renounce in 1965. Fifty years later, in May of this year, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew would start the wheels rolling faster toward an eventual reunion of Christianity, East and West. It was a historic time together in Jerusalem.