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The Holy Brother Apostles: Icons of Reconciliation

A quick glance through the pages of history helps us call to mind individuals that have significantly shaped our perception of the world. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin, to name a few, have given us insight into the mechanics of the cosmos. Given their magnitude, it is impossible for any of us to recount the significance of such historic figures in just words. Certainly, people try. This often leads to countless volumes dedicated to such influential personalities. Moreover, portraits and other works of art are often commissioned to pay homage to them and to help bring distant figures to life today.

In the Orthodox Church, art is considered an integral part of the world’s personal and intimate union with God, and is therefore considered sacred. Church hymnology, and especially iconography, enhances this experience. The hymns of the Church repeatedly remind us of the meaning behind a particular feast through their melodic and poetic structures. Additionally, Byzantine iconography provides us windows and doorways into eternity. In this way, holy icons not only open unto us doors to heaven, but also reveal that such a holy existence is possible in the present.

There is a particular icon of the Apostles Peter and Andrew that has captured the attention of many faithful in the past few months. The icon, entitled, “The Holy Apostolic Brothers (or “Holy Brother Apostles”) depicts the brothers, Peter and Andrew, embracing each other. Above each Saint is the cross of their martyrdom: Peter is shown with an inverted crux immissa and Andrew with the X-shaped curx decussata. The epithet for Saint Peter is “Leader” and for Saint Andrew is “First-Called,” denoting their roles in the original Twelve Disciples of Christ. The icon was a gift of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras to Pope Paul VI to commemorate their historic meeting in 1964. Its inscription reads: To His Holiness, the Pope of Rome, Paul VI [from] Athenagoras of Constantinople in remembrance of [our] meeting in Jerusalem, January 5, 1964. In the lower right corner the iconographer is recorded as being the Monk Meletios, and the place and date of the icon’s creation is Karyes, Mount Athos, 1965.

Besides its striking beauty, this icon holds great significant for a number of other reasons, some not obvious at first. It is, for instance, the first icon to depict the embrace between Andrew and Peter. The two Apostles were brothers, which means that they are likely to have expressed their fraternal affection through such a gesture. However, this scene is never described in the pages of Scripture, suggesting that Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras wished to highlight something beyond a historical moment in the lives of Saint Peter and Andrew when commissioning the icon.

Herein lies the real significance of the icon. The embrace depicted in the “Holy Brother Apostles” icon not only suggests the fraternal affection between Andrew and Peter, but also points to the reconciliation between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, a process which began with the meeting of the two Primates in Jerusalem in 1964. Moreover, the embrace of the two Apostles reminds us of another icon—one far more familiar than the “Holy Brother Apostles”—portraying the reconciliation between the Apostles Peter and Paul following their brief yet serious disagreement over the status of Gentile Christians (Acts 15; Galatians 2: 11-14). In this icon, again, two Apostles are shown expressing their brotherly affection through an embrace, and thus, bearing witness to the Holy Gospel through oneness of mind and heart.

Many people are aware of the events that transpired in the year 1054. The Church, because of the mutual excommunications between the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople, was divided into the Orthodox East and the Catholic West. Most, however, are not aware that the lifting of these anathemas was a direct result of the good will, trust and love present in the hearts of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. A year after their meeting in Jerusalem, the Pope of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (together with the Holy and Sacred Synod of Constantinople), “removed both from memory and from the midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication.” Hence, the icon commissioned by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras for Pope Paul VI sent a stark message to the world: the Orthodox and Catholic Churches have ended centuries of fear, conflict, and misunderstanding and have entered a period of reconciliation, forgiveness, mutual understanding, and respect.

Since the historic meeting of the two Primates in Jerusalem in 1964, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches have engaged each other in a dialogue of truth and love. More and more, Catholics and Orthodox Christians are working together to address social concerns, such as hunger, poverty, and religious freedom. Through the international and North American Orthodox-Catholic Consultations we have come to understand the nuances of each other’s traditions and are making progress in overcoming the theological differences that keep us from full communion. Moreover, for the first time since the division of the Church, our communities have begun developing joint programming, including “Faith and Safety: Technology Safety through the Eyes of Faith,” a resource guide produced by the collaboration between The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis will carry this legacy into the new millennium through their scheduled meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, May 25, 2014. The spiritual leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church will meet each other to commemorate the 50-year anniversary since the meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, and they will simultaneously look to forge a future of hope and faith for both communities. The meeting in 1964 led to a series of significant developments that have had a positive impact on the lives of both Catholic and Orthodox faithful around the world, including the blessing of inter-Christian marriage between Orthodox and Roman Catholics. We are very hopeful that the meeting between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will in like manner further enhance the lives of our faithful. Through your prayers, the dialogo (dialogue) between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches will lead to far greater degrees of leitourgia (work), and by the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit, may one day lead us into full koinonia (communion) with each other.

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