DAMASCUS, Syria, MAY 6, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Hoping that his trip to Syria will foster Christian unity, John Paul II proposed once again that Eastern and Western Christians come to an agreement on the date for Easter.
The most important ecumenical event of the Pope´s Syria visit took place Saturday afternoon when he attended a meeting of representatives of all the Christian communities present in the country. The event was held in the Greek-Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.
On hand were patriarchs and bishops of Christian communities that trace their origin to the apostles´ preaching.
Greek-Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim of Antioch and All the East, whose present see is in Syria, delivered the welcome address. Also present were Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Syrian-Orthodox patriarch of Antioch and supreme head of the Syrian-Orthodox universal Church, as well as Greek-Melkite (Catholic) Patriarch Gregoire III Laham.
The Christians who attended the event pray in Arabic, Greek or Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. In this country that is 90% Muslim, Jesus´ disciples put aside their centuries-old differences to welcome the Bishop of Rome.
Some of Syria´s Christian communities came here to flee from persecutions, especially early in the 20th century. The neighborhoods of Damas, Aleppo and Homs became places of refuge for them.
As soon as the Pope´s plane landed in Damascus on Saturday, all Syrian Christian leaders were there to greet and applaud him.
The Greek-Orthodox patriarch greeted the Pope with moving words: “I embrace you, together with the synod around me — priests, monks and faithful — in love for Jesus Christ our Lord,” Ignatius IV Hazim said.
For his part, the Pope encouraged “the process of ecumenical rapprochement” that has been taking place in the country for years, as “part of the wider process of reunion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.”
“By virtue of the apostolic succession,” John Paul II said, “the priesthood and the Eucharist unite in very close bonds our particular Churches, who call one another, and love to call one another, sister Churches.”
“And now,” he continued, “after a long period of division and mutual misunderstanding, the Lord is enabling us to discover ourselves as sister Churches once more, in spite of the obstacles that were once raised between us. If today … we are seeking the re-establishment of full communion, it is for the accomplishment of this reality that we must work and it is to this reality that we must refer.”
John Paul II renewed an initiative he has proposed for years: the celebration of Jesus´ resurrection on the same date by Eastern and Western Christians, as a visible sign of their quest for full unity.
The difference in dates for the celebration of Easter was the result of Pope Gregory XIII´s reform of the liturgical calendar in 1582. Eastern Christians, most of them Orthodox, continue to calculate the date of Easter according to the old Julian calendar. Sometimes, Easter Sunday falls on the same date in both calendars, as happened this year.
“Since Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church has shown herself favorable to every effort to re-establish the common celebration of the paschal feast,” the Pope said. “Yet this process seems more difficult than anticipated. Is it, perhaps, necessary to envisage intermediate or gradual stages, in order to prepare minds and hearts for the implementation of an arrangement acceptable to all Christians of East and West?”
The Holy Father said that the answer should come from the Christian patriarchs and bishops of the Mideast.