Sixty years ago, on 6 January 1964, Pope Saint Paul vi and the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople held a historic meeting on the Mount of Olives, hosted by our great predecessor, Patriarch Benedictos. It was the first visit of a pope to the Holy Land since the schism. This meeting was to open a new path, both for our respective Churches, as well as for the Holy Land.
Ten years ago, their successors, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, met in Jerusalem to commemorate this meeting, and we were pleased to host them.
The meeting of Pope Paul vi and Patriarch Athenagoras was to lead immediately to a new chapter. When Patriarch Athenagoras was asked why he was meeting the Pope, he remarked, “I came here to say ‘Good Morning’ to my beloved brother, the Pope. You must remember that it has been five hundred and twenty-five years since we have spoken to one another!” These two leaders opened up a new future for the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, for centuries divided. Age-old anathemas were lifted, and there was a fresh commitment to dialogue, mutual respect, and deeper understanding between the Churches.
It was not a universally popular move for some in our respective Churches. There was still fear and prejudice on both sides in some quarters. It is hard to lay aside such long histories of suspicion, hurt, and conflicting narratives. But Patriarch and Pope knew that a different future would only be possible if a new spirit of dialogue and a willingness for reconciliation were established. In their meeting they gave to the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church a fresh vision that inspired the eagerness of many to face and to overcome division. As Pope Paul said in his speech on 5 January 1964, their meeting was “founded in the hope of new and fruitful encounters.” This meeting was significant in encouraging even broader ecumenical dialogue.
Sixty years later, in the Holy Land, at a time of conflict and difficulty for all our peoples, and especially for Christians, that epoch-making meeting between Pope Paul vi and Patriarch Athenagoras continues to bear significant fruit in our Orthodox and Roman Catholic communities. The regular gatherings of the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches of the Holy Land in our day are the direct consequence of the meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch. The cooperation in the renovation and preservation of the Holy Places, especially the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Basilica of the Nativity, has been made possible because of the spirit of that meeting long ago that is alive and well between the leaders of the Churches. And in the face of the current mammoth challenges in our region, we have been able to join our efforts in a common mission to bring before the world the plight of all our peoples, and, of course, of the Christian community, and to call for a commitment by all parties involved to a process of dialogue for a peaceful, just, and enduring solution to the future of the land that is holy for the entire world.
While so much good progress has been made in the relations between the Churches, and especially between the Christian communities in the Holy Land, recognizing that we are doing our part, we have to continue, bearing in mind the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ to his disciples, that they may all be one (Jn 17:21). The Churches are committed to the true ecumenical journey, the ultimate goal of which is sharing in the common Chalice. We must never forget that Divine providence has placed us here to be a witness of the message of the hope of the Gospel. When the day dawns when we may share in this full sacramental unity, the purpose of the dialogue begun by Pope Saint Paul vi and Patriarch Athenagoras will have been fulfilled.
In the Holy Land we give thanks to Almighty God for the remarkable leadership that was shown by these two servants in overcoming prejudice, fear, and the shackles of history, and we pray earnestly that in the fullness of God’s providence the spirit of their initiative will inspire the leaders of our region to establish a lasting peace in the Holy Land.
May their memories be eternal.
* Patriarch of Jerusalem
By H.B. Theophilos iii*