Istanbul (AsiaNews) Magnificent Greek chants, embraces, statements about mutual commitment to continue working for full unity filled the meeting which Benedict XVI called a moment "of good will and ecclesiastic meaning".
At the end of the second day of his visit to Turkey, Benedict XVI arrived in the Phanar district, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the first "in honour" amongst Orthodox patriarchate. It is the eve of the Feast Day of Saint Andrew, patron saint of the Eastern Churches.
The meeting with Bartholomew I is the main purpose for the Pope's visit. And right after flying in from Izmir, Benedict XVI goes straight away to the Patriarchate.
There is an imposing deployment of police at the airport and along the road. The 22-kilometre route is closed off to all traffic: an empty freeway in the heart of the city with a police car at each intersection, police officers everywhere, and an armoured vehicle as part of the convoy.
Along the Golden Horn, impossibly crowded at this time of the day, lighted fishmonger stalls are empty, clients are missing. People waiting for the ferry come forward guardedly to edge of the road, more out of curiosity than anything else.
Al-Qaeda's threats are too recent to have had any impact on the tight security. For now as the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said, they don't worry the Pope or his entourage.
Upon arrival in the Phanar, the small Church of Saint Georgewithout its dome because under Ottoman rule only mosques could have domes, and without any cross at the entrance because it is a religious symbolis illuminated as it were a feast day. Inside the gold of the icons, the walls and the magnificent patriarch's throne are bright and shine.
Bartholomew and Benedict already know each other and have met before, but the Pope's visit to Istanbul, where the Pontiff will meet the Patriarch three times, is an expression of their shared desire to pursue the ecumenical journey.
Bartholomew made this point reminding popes and patriarchs of their responsibility along the path of reconciliation. Benedict XVI echoed it when explaining that his visit to the patriarchate is part of the journey to strengthen "the impetus towards mutual understanding and the quest of full unity."
Earlier, the Pope mentioned "the momentous events that have sustained our commitment to work for the full unity of Catholics and Orthodox. I wish above all to recall the courageous decision to remove the memory of the anathemas of 1054," taken in a joint declaration by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, and "written in a spirit of rediscovered love".
"Signs of this love," the Pope said, "have been evident in numerous declarations of shared commitment and many meaningful gestures."
During the ceremony, a celebration of Vespers in all but name, seven antiphons were sung. Two were dedicated to Peter and Paul, patron saints of the Church of Rome and the Church of Saint Andrew. The fifth was composed for Pope Paul VI's visit and expressed the joy of the Church of Constantinople in receiving the one who sits in the Seat of Peter. A passage from Zachariah, which calls upon the peoples of the East and the West to come together in Jerusalem, is read.
Afterwards Bartholomew and Benedict XVI held a private meeting inside the small compound surrounded by a maze of streets in a district that is relatively close to the heart of Istanbul.
The Pope and Patriarch will meet again tomorrow for the solemn celebration of Saint Andrew in the Church of Saint George and are scheduled to sign a joint declaration. Nothing ground-breaking is expected from the statement, nor is it expected to be a giant leap along the ecumenical path, but it is certainly another step forward, especially in light of the work by the re-established joint commission that is dealing with Catholic-Orthodox theological issues. Just a few weeks ago in fact, the same commission meeting in Belgrade touched upon the fundamental issue of the Petrine primacy.