Is it a sign from the « Holy and substantial and life-giving and indivisible Trinity » [Byzantine Matins, Orthros] that we are gathered today to recall and celebrate the encounter of Pope Paul VI, head of the Roman Catholic Church with the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople ? Great Lent has just started for all the Christians who live in Jerusalem, the Holy Land till the farthest places of the world. The Orthodox continuous prayer states : « Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν/ Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner ». We all turn to the « Only One Lord » (stanza repeated during Great Lent) to highlight the significant meeting that took place in the City of the Resurrection of the Lord and at the Mount of Olives, looking ahead of the Eschaton, the Second Coming of the Messiah.
We just celebrated, in 2013, the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan that so meaningfully reminds us of the official recognition and tolerance of the Christian faith in the Roman Empire. We are thus called to face history and cope with its length, its depth. When John XXIII has been elected as the Bishop of Rome, Patriarch Athenagoras sent his envoy, Archbishop Iakovos of the Archdiocese of America, to greet the new Pope at Rome. This was the first contact of this nature since May 1547.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is essentially inspired by the power and the communion of the Holy Spirit. Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople heard of the pilgrimage that Pope Paul VI intended to do to Jerusalem and the Holy Land fifty years ago, namely in 1963, as the Second Council of the Vatican was on its way and would be closed on December 8, 1965.
The anecdote is known : the Ecumenical Patriarch decided to come to Jerusalem «to say 'Good Morning' to my beloved brother the Pope. You must remember that it is five hundred years since we have spoken to each other!", he declared. At the Mount of Olives, they were welcomed by Patriarch Benediktos of Jerusalem, who had participated in the three sessions of the Pan-Orthodox Meetings at Rhodos.
The three heads of the Churches met on January 5th, 1964, on the eve of the Eastern Orthodox Feast of the Nativity. « We did achieve something positive today » the Ecumenical Patriarch declared.
The journey to the Holy Land gave a special impulse to the Churches and this concerns all of the denominations that are present in Jerusalem at the present. Looking backward into the past fifty years, it is possible to say that the slow reconnection between the Churches inside of the Roman Empire of the East and the West rose from the dramatic events that had happened throughout 900 years of estrangement, in particular after the two World Wars.
During the Second Vatican Council, the Church of Rome positively considered the Eastern Orthodox traditions, especially that of the Greek and Hellenistic sources that have constantly been impacting the initial Church of Jerusalem and the nearby original Pentarchy, the five first Patriarchates. Today, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem have been expanding all over the Earth. In 1962-65, the Church of Rome reflected upon the importance of different matters that have always been vivid in the Orthodox Traditions : the recognition of the Local Churches, the role of the Liturgies (Invocation to the Holy Spirit, Communion to both Body and Blood of the Lord during the Eucharist), the discipline of the Church (diaconate, role of the lay people), the Christian sources of the Fathers of the Church, the use of the local languages, the icons.
The most important decision was taken on December 7th, 1965, with the lifting the anathemas dating of 1054, simultaneously decreed by Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Rome. In this respect, Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople acted as the « Primus inter pares » of the Orthodox Churches at a time when most of these Churches were not free or underground. Many things have been launched after this « encounter in the name of Love ». They will further be discussed as new times have shown only 20 years ago and the re-deployment of the Eastern Orthodox Churches throughout the world.
Fifty years have passed. A glimpse of time and still… On October 26, 1965, the relics of Saint Sabbas the Sanctified (– a contemporary of Saint Benedict – ) the founder of the Palestinian monasticism were returned to Patriarch Benediktos of Jerusalem by Pope Paul VI. It caused a huge movement of joy and profound emotion among the Christians of Jerusalem. The atmosphere was radiant and exceptional. On November 12, 1965, the body of the Saint came to rest at Mar Sabbas Monastery that he had initiated in 483 A.D. It has also a strong « liturgical » meaning because the monastic Typikon of the « Byzantine rite » as defined by Mar Sabbas became the primordial Church Order of the Jerusalem Prayer Services that progressively spread among all the Eastern Churches.
It is quite important that we can be present these days in Jerusalem on the wake of the visit that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios of Constantinople and Pope Francis of Rome will make to the Church of the Resurrection, hosted by Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem, the spiritual son and successor of Patriarch Benediktos of Jerusalem.
(text of my "lecture" for the opening of the Franciscan exhibition on the the 50th anniversary of the visit of Pope Paul VI and his encounter with Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople at Jerusalem, with Patriarch Benediktos of Jerusalem).
Archpriest Alexander Winogradsky
Jerusalem, March 6, 2014