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The spirit of Pope Montini and Patriarch Athenagoras’ meeting in 1964 renewed in 2014 by Francis and Bartholomew

An uninterrupted journey of unity

 An uninterrupted journey of unity  ING-002
12 January 2024

The joy that Pope Paul vi’s pilgrimage brought to the life of the city of Jerusalem 60 years ago, and the energy of newness that it generated, are still part of the life of Christians in the Holy Land today. As always in fact, as for all things that have to do with Jerusalem, the profound meaning of those events and in particular of the encounter between the Holy Father and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, changed the face of the Church and outlined her journey up to today.

The Bishop of Rome returned to Jerusalem, from where he had set out 2,000 years ago. During the pilgrimage that took him to the most important holy sites, he encountered the highly visible wounds that history had left on the geography of the places and in the people of that time and of today. But he also received the strong and powerful embrace of the entire population, that welcomed him with incredible joy and enthusiasm, unquestionably showing to its pastors its willingness not to be constrained by the difficult history of this Land, but rather to want to go beyond. Film clips from the time show Paul vi entering the Holy City, almost crushed by the enthusiastic and euphoric crowd.

Indeed, sometimes, small gestures that perhaps were unknowingly awaited and sought by many, are enough to liberate the desire for encounter and peace that lies in the heart of all men and women, especially here in the Holy Land, marked as it is by external tension, conflict and division. Christian Jerusalem was stationary, almost suspended, between ancient laws, rules that seemed to paralyse rather than regulate ordinary life. Pope Montini’s visit was responsible for breaking what at the time seemed to be a very solid wall of various status quos, often used more wrongly than rightly, to avoid having to deal with one another. That simple visit was enough to sweep away centuries of dust from our relations.

The meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was undoubtedly the highlight of the pilgrimage. Peter’s return to Jerusalem, the place of birth of the One, undivided Church, after 2,000 years, could not avoid that wound, the deepest wound of all, which marked the Church’s journey for an entire millennium. Indeed, Peter’s return to Jerusalem was also the beginning of a new journey for all Christians, one of reconciliation, of rereading and redeeming each other’s history, of desire and nostalgia for the lost unity. After all, returning to and leaving Jerusalem always and necessarily bears with it a profound change. For Christians, Jerusalem is the place that gave concreteness to Redemption, that changed the meaning of forgiveness, justice and truth. One cannot come to Jerusalem without dealing with these realities, which I repeat, have a special concreteness here.

Much has changed in Ecumenical Dialogue since then. Today we take the attitude of respect and friendship among Churches for granted. We owe this to them, to the Pope and to the Ecumenical Patriarch, and to their courage and vision. With his pilgrimage of prayer to the Holy Land in 2014, and his commemoration of the meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Francis concretely showed how far the Church had journeyed in those 50 years and after that. In 1964, the meeting took place on the Mount of Olives, a place of significance, but located on the peripheries of Jerusalem. In 2014 instead, it took place in the heart of Christian Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, which is not only the place of Christ’s Death and Resurrection but also the Place which, rightly or wrongly, is considered the symbol of our divisions.

Certainly, we who live in Jerusalem are well aware that the journey is still long, and we know how difficult it is sometimes to stay and live together, but the simple fact that this important event could take place in our most cherished place is an unmistakable sign of the journey that has been undertaken up to now. Sixty years ago, that embrace tore down the wall of division between the two Churches, inaugurating a new era for the life of the Church. The embrace that took place 50 years later renewed the momentum of joy and unity in the Spirit that none of us can now foresee, but which is already bringing abundant fruits to the life of the Church today. We see this in the restoration work at the Basilica, which is carried out together, a fact that is taken for granted today, but that would have been unthinkable until a few years ago. Encounters, statements and shared initiatives among the Churches are today considered ordinary routine. Shared pastoral work in schools and parishes are expressions of a desire for fraternity that is not a desire of just a few but of the entire local Christian community, in its various denominations. The pastoral Vademecum of the Catholic Church which provides practical guidelines on how mixed families (which are almost all of them) can celebrate the sacraments in a way that respects the sensitivities of all, is another example of this.

Today too, perhaps even more than in the past, we need courageous men and women who are capable of vision, of knowing how to look beyond the present suffering, freeing our hearts, oppressed by too many fears; people who, like Paul vi and Athenagoras did with their words and gestures, know how to indicate the difficult and fascinating way of peace to Christians in the Holy Land today.

* Cardinal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem

By Pierbattista Pizzaballa*