In a highly symbolic celebration at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre on Sunday, Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I spoke of their common resolve to enable Christ’s prayer for unity to be answered.
“Your Holiness, beloved brother, dear brothers and sisters all, let us put aside the misgivings we have inherited from the past and open our hearts to the working of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, in order to hasten together towards that blessed day when our full communion will be restored,” Francis said in an address that followed a homily given by Patriarch Bartholomew.
The two had signed a Joint Declaration prior to the ecumenical celebration.
Their common pilgrimage marked the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting in Jerusalem of their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras.
“It is an extraordinary grace to be gathered here in prayer,” the Pope said. “The empty tomb, that new garden grave where Joseph of Arimathea had reverently placed Jesus’ body, is the place from which the proclamation of the resurrection begins. … This proclamation, confirmed by the testimony of those to whom the risen Lord appeared, is the heart of the Christian message, faithfully passed down from generation to generation. … This is the basis of the faith which unites us.”
“Let us receive the special grace of this moment. We pause in reverent silence before this empty tomb in order to rediscover the grandeur of our Christian vocation: we are men and women of resurrection, and not of death. From this place we learn how to live our lives, the trials of our Churches and of the whole world, in the light of Easter morning,” Francis said. “Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the basis of our hope! Let us not deprive the world of the joyful message of the resurrection! And let us not be deaf to the powerful summons to unity which rings out from this very place, in the words of the One who, risen from the dead, calls all of us ‘my brothers.'”
Francis admitted that “much distance still needs to be travelled before we attain that fullness of communion which can also be expressed by sharing the same Eucharistic table, something we ardently desire.”
“Yet,” he continued, “our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyse our progress. We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed. This will be a grace of resurrection, of which we can have a foretaste even today.”
Finally, addressing Bartholomew and all those present, he said, “Your Holiness, beloved brother, dear brothers and sisters all, let us put aside the misgivings we have inherited from the past and open our hearts to the working of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, in order to hasten together towards that blessed day when our full communion will be restored.”
After this discourse, the Pope and the Patriarch embraced as a sign of peace and prayed the Lord’s Prayer together in Italian, while the others present did so in their own languages. They then entered the Sepulchre to venerate the empty tomb, after which they ascended to the Basilica together to bless the people. They then continued to Mount Calvary, accompanied by the Greek and Armenian Patriarchs and the Custodian of the Holy Land, to venerate the place of Jesus’ death and crucifixion.
The Ordinaries of the Holy Land, the Syrian archbishop, the Ethiopian archbishop, the Anglican bishop, the Lutheran bishop, and others participated in the celebration. It was also attended by the general consuls of the five countries who guarantee the “Statu quo” of the Basilica (France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Greece), and the other consuls of the “Corpus separatum” of Jerusalem (Switzerland, the United States, Turkey, and the United Kingdom).
The Holy Sepulchre is, according to tradition, the place where the burial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place. After the repression of the Jewish revolt in 135, Jerusalem underwent a radical change: the Jews, Samaritans and Judeo-Christians were expelled and their return was prohibited. Hadrian, with the intention of eliminating every trace of the religion that had provoked two violent revolts, destroyed all places of worship, and the Holy Sepulchre suffered the same fate: it was razed to the ground, its cavities filled with earth, and a temple to the goddess Venus-Ishtar was built over it. During the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea, the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, invited the emperor Constantine to restore to light the Holy Sepulchre, which, beneath the rubble, was perfectly preserved. The Basilica of the Resurrection to be built there at the behest of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, and went on to have a tumultuous history throughout the centuries. The stone that sealed the tomb was broken during the Persian invasion of 614 and it went on to suffer further damages until the decision of the Crusaders in 1099 to enclose all the monuments to the death and Resurrection of Christ in a single building, which remained almost unaltered until the end of the nineteenth century. Further damages resulted from the earthquake in 1927 and the first Arab-Israel war in 1948.
The Basilica continues to be regulated according to the “Statu quo”, and it is the property of three communities: the Latins (represented by the Friars Minor), the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox; the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox may officiate in the Basilica. At the entrance, in the atrium, there is the Stone of the Anointing, which according to tradition indicates the place where Jesus, deposed from the Cross, was anointed.
Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew were received by the three superiors of the communities of the “Statu Quo” (Greek Orthodox, Franciscan and Armenian Apostolic). The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III and the Custodian of Jerusalem, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M. Cap., and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch, His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, venerated the Stone of the Anointing, followed by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch.