Apostolic Pilgrimage: Day Three

One thing that you realize fairly quickly on your first day in the Holy Land, especially in the Old City of Jerusalem, is that you are always walking on ground connected in some way to the Holy Scriptures. Moreover, you come to understand that this hallowed ground is revered by a multitude of faith traditions. It is, therefore, almost impossible to find a house of worship that holds significant value to only one religious community. On a daily basis there are a number of Christians including, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syriac, who will pray at these sites.

As an Orthodox priest serving in the United States of America, where Christian denominations tend to shy away from worshiping together in the same space, I was completely baffled when I entered Jerusalem’s Holy Church of the Resurrection. And this is precisely because this blessed sanctuary is not used by just one Christian communion. Rather, six different Christian groups formally use the church on a daily basis and conduct services therein.

For those not to sure of the significance of the Church of the Resurrection, suffice it to say that it bears within its walls the most sacred Christian sites of the world, including Golgotha, the tomb of Adam, the rock of the Apokathelosis, and of course, the jewel of Orthodoxy, the Holy Sepulcher. The empty tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ is the place where the world first learns that Jesus is Risen from the dead; it is because the tomb is empty that we know that the Savior has conquered death, granting life to those in the tombs! Hundreds, if not thousands, of pilgrims come to venerate the Holy Sepulcher on a daily basis.

So, when Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the leaders of the world’s largest Christian bodies, were scheduled to meet each other at the Holy Sepulcher to commemorate the meeting between their predecessors Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras that occurred fifty years ago, I wondered what this would look and feel like.

There are already countless images and articles posted on the Internet that provide some insight on different aspects of the meeting. Some draw our attention to the Primates’ physical gestures toward each other; others focus on the ecumenical prayer service; some analyze the prepared messages that were delivered; while still others discuss the impact that the meeting will have on the relationship between the two churches and on the peace process in the Middle East.

I don’t want to focus on any of that. Instead, I want to briefly share the overwhelming joy that I experienced that evening. As the Ecumenical Officer of the Archdiocese I have the opportunity to attend ecumenical prayer services and meetings regularly. For the most part, these meetings are well intended and represent a sincere effort for Christian communions to grow closer to one another, usually through a humanitarian efforts. For me, however, these meetings often feel mundane, perhaps even scripted.

The meeting between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, however, was anything but average or staged. The entire church was buzzing as the faithful waited for the two men to arrive. As they greeted each other and proceeded to enter the church, we released our energy in applause! I was speechless as I saw these two giants get on their knees and venerate the place of the crucifixion, the apokathelosis, and the tomb of the Resurrection. The love and respect for God and for neighbor that the Pope and the Patriarch revealed that evening left me searching for words.

There are some who believe that when we engage in the ecumenical dialogue the Holy Spirit abandons us. According to them, conversing with “the other” means that we have admitted there is something lacking in us. I don’t subscribe to this thinking. Indeed, I would say that only when we stand with and love “the other” can we ever completely realize our own identities.

In the past I would point to church canons, history, and theology when defending the ecumenical dialogue. I realize now that this is not necessary. I believe that the dialogue of truth and love between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches is an authentic and sincere dialogue because of what I have witnessed during this Apostolic Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the evening of May 24, 2014, the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father, was present in the hearts of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Through the prayers of our holy fathers, the pope and the ecumenical patriarch, Catholics and Orthodox Christians have received the joy, hope, and courage of the Holy Spirit to continue the inspirational work of the dialogues of truth and love. 

Read Apostolic Pilgrimage: Day One & Apostolic Pilgrimage: Day Two