Istanbul (AsiaNews) - In two days, Pope Francis will be in Turkey. The cornerstone of his visit will be the celebration with his Greek Orthodox brothers of the feast day of their patron, a tradition established by the last few popes.
Who can forget the joyful meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, only eight years ago, on 30 November 2006, for the feast of Saint Andrew, patron saint of the Eastern Churches, in the Church of St George, full of lights for the festive occasion, the air filled with wonderful Greek chants, hugs, and mutual commitments to continue the quest for full unity along a path set by their predecessors.
This quest, the result of a long process of ecumenical dialogudemee, has been ongoing for more than 50 years. If, in fact, official exchanges between the two sister Churches began after the meeting in Jerusalem between the Blessed Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras (6 January 1964), no one can forget that the ground was first laid by the slow and valuable work of dialogue by then Bishop Roncalli when he was apostolic delegate to Istanbul from 1935 to 1944.
It all started with a first simple and "silent" meeting in 1939 between the bishop of Bergamo - the future Pope John XXIII - and then Patriarch Benjamin I in that same small church. That was the first time a Catholic delegate had crossed the church's threshold, after the Byzantine patriarch Michael Cerularius refused to receive the papal delegation on 16 July 1054, and shut the door to a meeting with Rome, leading to the excommunication by the legates of Pope Leo IX and related mutual anathema, followed by centuries of misunderstandings, recriminations and suffering on both sides.
The Greek Orthodox ecumenical patriarch mentioned the famous first step of rapprochement between the two Churches at a recent conference on 10 October, on the occasion of the commemoration for the canonisation of Pope John XXIII.
"The veneration of the Orthodox world towards John XXIII expressed itself in the aftermath of his death," the patriarch said; "so much so that he is considered a Prepadovnie, a saint and a patron of ecumenism. Patriarch Athenagoras was the first to refer to him citing the Gospel passage: 'A man named John was sent from God'."
"The late Pope John XXIII was really a great spiritual figure in the history of the Catholic Church and Christianity," Bartholomew I said. "My blessed predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, publicly acknowledged the great personality of this Pope, applying to him the evangelical expressions that associate him to John the Baptist."
Born in1940 on the island of Imvros, Bartholomew I is a Turkish citizen who did his military service in the Turkish army, and received his doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute of the Gregorian University in Rome.
As the 270th successor to the Apostle Andrew, after Demetrios (Athenagoras's successor), he is highest Christian authority from the Caucasus to the Adriatic. Fluent in seven languages (Greek, Turkish, Latin, French, English, Italian and German), since he was appointed patriarch in 1991, he has firmly believed in ecumenical dialogue and has always been committed to building peace and reaching reconciliation between Catholics and Orthodox.
For this reason, he pushed for Francis to be in Istanbul on 30 November, the feast day of Saint Andrew, in what will be the fourth official meeting with Francis, all marked by great and profound harmony.
Bergoglio's episcopate in Buenos Aires was characterised by a strong desire for dialogue and mutual respect with the Orthodox Church. Bishop John, of the Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia, is based in Buenos Aires, remembers that Cardinal Bergoglio used to take part on a regular basis in the liturgy of the Orthodox Christmas in the Argentine city.
The two "brothers" immediately found themselves on the same wavelength and met. The Greek Orthodox patriarch was present at the Mass for the beginning of Pope Francis' Petrine ministry. Before that, the two had already met in a private audience, and saw each other again, on 20 March 2013, at the meeting with the fraternal delegates from other Christian denominations and other religions.
On that occasion, Pope Francis turned to Bartholomew calling him "brother Andrew", in reference to the family relationship between the apostles Peter and Andrew, of which the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople are the ideals successors.
During the pilgrimage to the Holy Land (24-26 May 2014), on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem, the two had a private meeting. This led to a statement on the Sunday, 25 May.
On that occasion Bartholomew called on Christians to fearless, strengthened by Paul VI and Athenagoras, who were able to "dispel the fear that had kept the two Churches divided for a millennium ", thus changing "fear in love" and indicating that "this is the only way to ensure that 'all may be one'."
For his part, Francis called for the rediscovery of "the grandeur of our Christian vocation: we are men and women of resurrection, and not of death" because "Every injury, every one of our pains and sorrows, has been borne on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd who offered himself in sacrifice and thereby opened the way to eternal life. His open wounds are like the cleft through which the torrent of his mercy is poured out upon the world."
Realistically, the pontiff acknowledged that "we cannot deny the divisions which continue to exist among us, the disciples of Jesus [. . .] yet our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyze our progress. We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed."
Two weeks after the trip to the Holy Land (8 June 2014), Francis hosted a prayer at the Vatican and, together with President Mahmoud Abbas and President Shimon Peres, Bartholomew I met with Pope Francis again to pray, together, for peace, in a "prayer summit" as a step towards a long-awaited reconciliation.
"This Pope is a good shepherd of the faithful and is a dear great friend," Bartholomew recently told Turkish newspapers. "I think that the Catholic Church needs a shepherd and his actions indicate a closeness to people. The alienation of the old days no longer exists. As two sister Churches, we come closer to each other every day. We also have a theological dialogue, and the role of the pope in the Christian world is the focus of this dialogue,"
With such sentiments, the two will come together again for the first Vespers of the feast of Saint Andrew next Saturday and then for the divine liturgy on Sunday at the Phanar.
Christians in Turkey are convinced that if it were up to these two shepherds, the gaps that still exist on the path towards full communion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church would be bridged as quickly as the time it takes for two to embrace, as they did with intensity and eloquence during the suggestive ceremony held at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, an event that should be repeated again in Constantinople.