JERUSALEM — Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the successors to the apostles Peter and Andrew, made history in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today by holding a prayer service together in a place where Christians from different churches have previously prayed only separately.
During the evening prayer service in Jerusalem, both Pope and Patriarch knelt beside each other to pray and also light candles at the tomb where Jesus Christ was buried after his crucifixion in 34 A.D. and rose from the dead on the third day. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told journalists at a late evening press conference that their public mutual prayer was completely new and another “historic” step forward in ecumenical progress begun by Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in 1964.
“From the ecumenical point, for the Christian, this evening celebration was the high point of this visit,” he said.
“This is the first time that Christians of different confessions [will] pray together in the Holy Sepulchre. Normally, they will pray at different times and in different groups.”
According to the plan for the service, Patriarch Bartholomew was to enter from the east of the Holy Sepulchre and meet Pope Francis as he entered from the west.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has had a reputation over the years of territorial fights and squabbling, occasionally breaking out in fist fights between monks around Easter. Today, however, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew symbolically repudiated that divisive behavior as they united in prayer for their Churches’ eventual unity.
Father Lombardi revealed that representatives of Lutherans, Anglicans, Coptic Orthodox, Armenians and other representatives of Christian groups were among those present and were accompanying the Pope and patriarch to the Latin Patriarchate to share an evening meal together.
“It was the best way to commemorate the historical moment of the meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoras 50 years ago.”
Gathered at Golgotha
Both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew shared a “moving moment,” Father Lombardi added, when they both went to Golgotha to pray and touch the stone and the altar where Christ was crucified.
“I can witness that, for the Pope, these moments are very moving and a profound experience,” he said, referencing also the Pope’s silent prayer May 24 at the baptismal site of Jesus by John in Jordan on the Jordan river, and then at the Church of the Nativity May 25 in Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank territory.
“For the Pope, these are moments of profound joy and spiritual inspiration,” he said.
The symbolism of the joint pilgrimage to Jerusalem also has added symbolism in that the successor of St. Andrew called the successor of St. Peter to join him in the Holy Land. According to the Christian Scriptures, it was St. Andrew, the brother of St. Peter, who first called his brother to come and meet Jesus of Nazareth nearly 2,000 years ago. Patriarch Bartholomew had made history in 2013 when he attended the installation of Francis as bishop of Rome.
Father Lombardi told journalists that the “meeting with the apostolic delegation [of Patriarch Bartholomew] was wonderful” and that their conversations at Mount Scopus before the ecumenical celebration went much longer than expected, delaying their arrival at the Holy Sepulchre by close to an hour.
“They were very happy to talk with each other in a very friendly way,” he said.
The Vatican spokesman told journalists that both Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew exchanged gifts commemorating the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras 50 years ago, when both leaders lifted the excommunications their predecessors had imposed on each other back in 1054.
Pope Francis gave Patriarch Bartholomew the Codex Pauli, a book that honors St. Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, while Patriarch Bartholomew gave the Pope a set of medals to commemorate their meeting. Father Lombardi translated the inscription in the Pope’s gift to Patriarch Bartholomew, written partly in Italian and Greek:
“To the beloved brother in Christ, His Beatitude Bartholomew I, bishop of Constantinople and ecumenical Patriarch, thus recalling the embrace of Patriarch Athenagoras and Paul VI, I am most happy to meet you here in Jerusalem to bring forward, with the courage the Holy Spirit gives us, the charge that our predecessors elected to us. I embrace you with all my love in Christ, Christ who is love.”
They both signed a common declaration, he said, in the room where Paul VI and Athenagoras met in Jerusalem, an event that was both a “moving moment” and accompanied “with great joy.”
The ecumenical meeting also reflected Pope Francis’ desire to show with “his brother in Christ” how dialogue takes place with friendship and personal encounter — key elements of the culture of encounter the Pope has encouraged for Christians.
Father Lombardi also quoted Pope Francis from the day’s discourse, where he said he was renewing his predecessors’ desires “to have a dialogue with all my Christian brothers in Christ” to look for a new way of exercising the Petrine ministry of the bishop of Rome that could become in today’s context “a service of love and communion that could be recognized by all.”
Father Lombardi said both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI had advocated this direction. But, he said, it was “very significant” that Pope Francis chose this particular moment in the Holy Sepulchre to emphasize that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches must dialogue about the crucial issue of the exercise of papal authority — “about how, in this adverse situation, we can dialogue together to find a way to renew the service of the bishop of Rome for all the Christians and all mankind — a service of love and communion.”