The Bones of Affection and Unity: St. Nick is Visiting Russia

St. Nicholas is an ecumenical saint par excellence, a saint for all, a saint without borders with a special mission to heal the thousand-year-old divisions between East and West.

Moretto da Brescia, “St. Nicholas of Bari Presents the Rovelli Students to Madonna and Child”, 1539
Moretto da Brescia, “St. Nicholas of Bari Presents the Rovelli Students to Madonna and Child”, 1539 (photo: Public Domain)

On July 13, 2017, the relics of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker (270-343) from Myra (present-day Turkey), otherwise known as Santa Claus, traveled from Moscow to the city of St. Petersburg. The relics of the saint, one of the most revered saints in the Russian Orthodox Church, will stay at Holy Trinity Cathedral of the St. Alexander of Nevsky Laura (Monastery) in St. Petersburg until July 28. On the 28th, they'll be returned to the city of Bari in southern Italy. According to Russian Orthodox Church sources, over one million Orthodox faithful, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, visited the relics of St. Nicholas in Moscow and more than half of pilgrims were non-Muscovites. Rev. Fr. Alexander Volkov, head of the Russian Patriarchate press office, explained that women made up 60% and men 40% of the total number of the pilgrims who came to pay special homage to the saint in Moscow. The decision to send the relics of St. Nicholas to Russia was made after a special request from Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to Pope Francis in February 2016, during their historic meeting in Havana, Cuba.

In the first millennium, Christians of East and West were able to share the Eucharist and the essential truths of the Christian faith while respecting theological, canonical, and spiritual traditions founded on the teaching of the apostles and the first seven ecumenical councils which still are recognized as fundamentals to the doctrine of both churches. Moreover, Christian Churches in the East and West venerated and still venerate the same martyrs and saints of the first Christian millennium. According to the Russian Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, “Nothing else unites people as tightly as common saints.” Common saints, the principles of “unity in diversity” of the first common Christian millennium, have made a comeback in contemporary ecumenism in bridge-building and healing the wounds of estrangement and division between Rome and Constantinople. The common theological principles, canonical rules, and liturgical practices of the early Church of the first millennium constitute an indispensable point of reference and a powerful source of unity for Catholics and Orthodox. Applying the principles of a common heritage and the theological principles of unity in the first millennium, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church gathered in the city of Chieti in Italy on September 21, 2016, determined how primacy, synodality (church council), and the interrelatedness between the two can be conceived and applied in the current situation.

During the first Christian millennium, both East and West venerated the relics of the same saints and martyrs. Beginning in the second century, the preservation of the saints’ relics was followed by annual celebrations of the date of martyrdom. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, written in the second century A.D. and one of the few surviving documents from the age of persecution, details the martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp, who was bound and sentenced to be burned at the stake, refused to revile Christ and confessed to being a Christian, then was stabbed when the fire failed to touch him. Christians “afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom.” (Chapter 18) Polycarp, a saint of the first Christian millennium, is regarded as a saint and venerated in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches. As St. Nicholas the Wonderworker who is currently visiting Russia, Polycarp is an ecumenical saint, or a saint without frontiers on a mission to unite the Church in death as he did in life.

St. John Paul II made it a goal of his pontificate to heal memories and bridge differences between Eastern and Western Churches focusing on the communion of saints including St. Nicholas. For St. John Paul II the first Christian millennium is a model of unity, and its principles are considered current and applicable in contemporary ecumenism: “I look with great hope to the Eastern Churches, and I pray for a full return to that exchange of gifts which enriched the Church of the first millennium. May the memory of the time when the Church breathed with ‘both lungs’ spur Christians of East and West to walk together in unity of faith and with respect for legitimate diversity, accepting and sustaining each other as members of the one Body of Christ,” wrote St. John Paul II about the first millennium in 2000 in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte.

Pope Benedict XVI during his pontificate earned a great deal of respect from the leaders of the Orthodox Church and made progress building bridges between East and West, returning to the principles of the first millennium while working to make the third Christian millennium a bridge- building-millennium to bring an end to the division of the second millennium. The same goes for Pope Francis. On June 29, 2017, celebrating the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in Rome, Pope Francis spoke to a delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. As his immediate predecessors Pope Francis values the unity of the Church in the first Christian millennium: "the sacred task of tracing our way back along the path that paved the separation of our churches, healing the sources of our mutual alienation and moving toward the re-establishment of full communion in faith and love, mindful of our legitimate differences, just as it was in the first millennium." During his three-day visit in Turkey from November 28-30, 2014, Pope Francis had a special ecumenical meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The three-day journey of the Bishop of Rome to Turkey was significant as it recalled the witnesses of faith: the seventeenth centenary of the birth of St. Ephrem the Syrian (306) and the sixteenth centenary of the death of St. John Chrysostom (407) respectively. Both saints of the first Christian millennium similar to St. Nicholas are venerated in the East and West.

Experts are predicting that like in Moscow, millions of Russians will have venerated the relics of St. Nicholas in St. Petersburg by the time the relics have departed for Bari. Once again, St. Nicholas is uniting believers and non-believers, Russians, Greeks, and Latins. He is an ecumenical saint par excellence, a saint for all, a saint without borders with a special mission to heal the thousand-year-old divisions between East and West.