Vatican City (AsiaNews) In a solemn ecumenical ceremony that took place today in St. Peter's Basilica John Paul II handed over the relics of Sts. Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, 'first among equals' for the Orthodox. For the Pope, the gesture was intended to strengthen Christian unity which he "will never tire" to seek: it was a demonstration of 'fraternity' towards the Ecumenical Patriarch that shows that "there are no insurmountable problems in the Church of Christ".
A choir sang in Greek and Latin around the precious alabaster reliquaries placed before, then on the Altar of the Confession, a few steps from where John Paul II and Bartholomew I sat.
For both Rome and Constantinople, the Saints' relics represent an undivided Church, but have a special resonance for the Eastern Church since as Archbishops of Constantinople Sts. Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom are Bartholomew I's predecessors.
The Patriarch called the Pope's gesture 'historic'. For his part, John Paul II said that this was "a favourable moment to join his prayer to their intercession so that the Lord might hasten the hour when we might celebrate the Eucharist together and thus live the full communion, and contribute more effectively to making the world believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord".
In stressing his desire to work towards Christian unity, John Paul II reiterated his role in the community of the faithful and expressed his wish to be a servant of the communion in truth and love in response to the Will of the Lord."
For Bartholomew I, who repeatedly thanked and praised John Paul II, today's gesture was "a sacred act that mends an anomaly and injustice".
"It is certain that both saints whose relics are now going home are praying for the reestablishment of concord and unity," the Patriarch said, "for it is well known that both fought for the unity of the Church in faith and truth."
"We are convinced," he added, "that you [i.e. the Pope] strongly wish to see improved inter-Church relations."
Patriarch Bartholomew I's remarks echo an ancient dispute. The Patriarchate believes that the relics were brought to Rome after being purloined following the sacking of Constantinople in 1204.
"Every gesture that heals old wounds and prevents new ones," he said, "builds the necessary bases for continued dialogue in truth and love".
In referring to the historic dispute, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro said the gesture should not be seen as a demand for forgiveness for the sacking of Constantinople. He pointed out that the relics of Saint Gregory Theologus were venerated in Rome as early as the end of the eighth century. (FP)