Pope Bergoglio expresses his desire to discuss the Petrine Primacy. “Divisions remain between the churches, even after the first embrace Christians continue to be persecuted, there is the ecumenicalism of sufferance. Like the stone of the sepulchre, we must cast aside the obstacles that stand between Christians.” Francis and Bartholomew embraced in the same place that the historic embrace between Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I took place 50 years ago. After having lunch with the poor in the “Casanova” house for pilgrims, Pope Francis met the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem.
The secretary of state Pietro Parolin and the president of the Pontifical Council for the promotion of the Unity of Christians, Cardinal Kurt Koch, were also present at this important meeting. After an exchange of gifts and a moment of private meeting, the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch signed a Joint Statement. This gesture, they announced, “is a new, necessary step on the path towards communion”. And where “the embrace between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras after centuries of silence laid the foundations for a gesture of extraordinary virtue, the removal from memory and from the midst of the church of the bill of excommunications of 1054”, the new embrace is necessary to reaffirm – explained the two religious leaders – our commitment to continuing to walk together towards unity”. “We long for the day – declared the Pope and Patriarch together – in which we will finally celebrate the Eucharist together”. “A common objective we strive for, we will demonstrate the love of God before the world, and in this way we will be recognised as true disciples of Jesus Christ.”
At the start of the ceremony, entering the Holy Sepulchre though different entrances to the church, the two religious leaders embraced again for the benefit of the photographers and TV journalists. Francis motions for Bartholomew to enter the Holy Sepulchre before him. With affection, they then took each other by the hand (as the Pope said to the Patriarch in Italian “be careful not to slip on the stones”) and they passed through the entrance to the Basilica together. Side by side, they then venerated the Stone of the Anointing, bending down with bare heads to kiss it (and Francis was then assisted by master of ceremonies Guido Marini to stand back up). “Here I reiterate the hope already expressed by my predecessors for a continued dialogue with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all”, announced Pope Bergoglio.
“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”, stated Francis. “When Christians of different confessions suffer together, side by side, and assist one another with fraternal charity, there is born an ecumenism of suffering, an ecumenism of blood, which proves particularly powerful not only for those situations in which it occurs, but also, by virtue of the communion of the saints, for the whole Church as well”. Speaking off the cuff, he adds: “Those who kill Christians in hate of the faith do not ask themselves whether they are killing Catholics or Orthodox Christians. They kill and spill Christian blood.”
Addressing Patriarch Bartholomew, the Pope encouraged: “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 and of truth in order to hasten together towards that blessed day when our full communion will be restored.” In fact “we cannot deny the divisions which continue to exist among us, the disciples of Jesus: this sacred place makes us even more painfully aware of how tragic they are”. For Francis, then, “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 our disagreements – urges the Pope - must not frighten us and paralyze 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”. “Every time we ask forgiveness of one another for our sins against other Christians and every time we find the courage to grant and receive such forgiveness, we experience the resurrection! Every time we put behind us our longstanding prejudices and find the courage to build new fraternal relationships, we confess that Christ is truly risen! Every time we reflect on the future of the Church in the light of her vocation to unity, the dawn of Easter breaks forth!”