The relationship between the Bishop of Rome, Successor to St. Peter, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, successor to St. Andrew, has been a fraternal relationship for the past 50 years.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, it was Peter and Andrew who were the first disciples called by Jesus to become “fishers of men."
Excommunications leveled after the Great Schism of 1054 were nullified when Blessed Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I met in Jerusalem. While not uniting the Churches, it displayed a great desire for reconciliation between them.
Since then, it has been the tradition for a delegation from each Church to celebrate the patronal feast of the other’s Church: Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29th and St. Andrew on November 30th.
On the eve of the feast of St. Andrew, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joined together for an Ecumenical Prayer service at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Phanar, Turkey.
While the reverent, prayerful sounds of the Greek Orthodox prayers echoed in the Church, both the Pope and the Patriarch sat side by side, their heads bowed reverently.
Addressing Pope Francis, Bartholomew I welcomed him with “joy, honor and gratitude,” saying that his visit symbolically bridges “West and East through this movement, while translating the love of the Chief Apostle to his brother, the First-Called Apostle.”
The Ecumenical Patriarch also noted that the Holy Father’s visit is a witness of the will of the Church of Rome for the restoration of full communion with the Orthodox Church.
The relics of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, which lie in the Patriarchal Church, are a very sign of the desire for communion and reconciliation between the Orthodox Church and the Church of Rome.
Following a request by the Patriarch, St. John Paul II returned the relics of the two beloved Saints to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on November 27th, 2004. They were previously housed in St. Peter’s Basilica after they were stolen from Constantinople by mercenary crusaders in 1204. It was a gesture that was not forgotten by the Ecumenical Patriarch.
“This year marks the tenth anniversary since the blessed return of the relics of St. Gregory and St. John,” Patriarch Bartholomew said. ”We express to Your Holiness our fervent thanks for this fraternal gesture on behalf of Your Church to our Patriarchate.”
A Brother’s Blessing
For his part, Pope Francis also expressed his gratitude for being present at the prayer service, saying that his “heart awaits the day which we have already begun liturgically: the Feast of the Apostle Saint Andrew, Patron of this Church.”
“Yes, my venerable and dear Brother Bartholomew, as I express my heartfelt ‘thank you’ for your fraternal welcome, I sense that our joy is greater because its source is from beyond; it is not in us, not in our commitment, not in our efforts – that are certainly necessary – but in our shared trust in God’s faithfulness which lays the foundation for the reconstruction of his temple that is the Church.”
Reflecting on the calling of Peter and Andrew, the Pope said that their encounter with Christ transformed them from blood brothers to brothers in faith, charity and especially, hope.
“What a grace, and what a responsibility, to walk together in this hope, sustained by the intercession of the holy Apostles and brothers, Andrew and Peter!” he exclaimed.
After extending his best wishes, the Pope asked a favor from the Ecumenical Patriarch rarely seen. “I ask of you a favor: to bless me and the Church of Rome.”
Pope Francis approached Bartholomew I, who was visibly moved by the gesture. The Patriarch blessed the Pontiff, kissed his forehead and embraced him.
As they exited the prayer service and removed their respective stoles, Patriarch Bartholomew reached over to fix the Holy Father’s pectoral cross as he took his stole off. A gesture that, while significant to some, is common among brothers.