When Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras arrived in the Holy Land in 1964 for his historic meeting with Paul VI, a reporter asked him: “Why have you come to Jerusalem?” Athenagoras replied: “To say ‘good morning’ to my beloved brother, the Pope. You must remember that it is 500 years since we have spoken to each other!” The encounter between the patriarch and the pope was actually far more than an exchange of pleasantries. Their common declaration led, the following year, to the lifting of the mutual anathemas of 1054, which had formalised the division of the Church Christ founded after a millennium of unity.
This Sunday the successors of Patriarch Athenagoras and Paul VI will mark the 50th anniversary of an event which may have quietly altered the trajectory of Christian history. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope Francis will sign a joint declaration that is likely to call for an end to the millennium-old rift between Orthodox Christians and Catholics. Shortly afterwards, the patriarch and the Pope will proceed to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where they will be greeted by the superiors of all three communities that oversee the church: Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic. Bartholomew and Francis will then pray together publicly, an event regarded as “the great ecumenical novelty” of the visit. (Athenagoras and Paul VI had recited the Our Father together, but not at a formal, public celebration.) This moment of prayer at the spot where tradition holds Jesus was crucified will have real ecumenical bite.
As recently as 2008 Armenian and Greek Orthodox clergy exchanged punches and kicks, and knocked down tapestries, during a territorial dispute inside the church. The brawl illustrated what happens when Christian communities insist only on their “rights” and forget their call to service. Inside the church this Sunday the patriarch and the Pope will present a wholly different image of Christian relations: prayerful, inclusive and focused on Jesus. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of their example.
Francis’s visit to the Holy Land is his second international trip, but the first he has taken outside Italy on his own initiative. His eye-wateringly tight schedule includes meetings with Christians in Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel. Speaking to them, he is likely to address the threat to Christianity’s very existence in the Middle East. At the beginning of the century one in five people in the region were Christian. Today, it’s roughly one in 20. Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal has suggested the Holy Land is becoming a “spiritual Disneyland”: an entertaining diversion for travellers, lacking the soul of a thriving Christian community. There is little Pope Francis can say to persuade the faithful to stay in a region that, generally, offers them few opportunities to make a decent living. But perhaps he can convince us – the members of a fairly prosperous European Church – to give more to help families stay in the land where Jesus made his first disciples.
When it comes to inter-religious relations, Francis has an advantage over the three previous popes who have made pilgrimages to the Holy Land: unlike Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he doesn’t bring European baggage. The first Latin American pope isn’t associated with the great traumas of European inter-religious history: the Crusades and the Shoah. Like his predecessors, he brings a profound respect for Islam and love of Judaism, which he nurtured during his years in Argentina. His outreach in Buenos Aires was so effective that he will be accompanied to the Holy Land by a rabbi and an Islamic leader whom he regards more as friends than “partners in dialogue”.
Will the Pope be able to negotiate the political minefield of the Middle East? While this visit is undoubtedly the greatest diplomatic challenge of his life, he is accustomed to complex and dangerous political situations. Any leader who can emerge from Argentina’s Dirty War with his integrity intact should be able to cope with the demands of this whirlwind visit. Francis intends, no doubt, to do more than simply complete the trip without diplomatic incident. He will want to inspire new efforts to resolve the differences between Israelis and Palestinians. His prophetic style of leadership is likely to cause all sides some discomfort. Let’s hope that it also leaves them even just one step closer together.
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