Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras attend a prayer service in Jerusalem in January 1964


Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras attend a prayer service in Jerusalem in January 1964

May 26, 2014

The principal purpose of the visit of Pope Francis to the Holy Land May 24 to 26 will not be a conventional pilgrimage. It is to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I.

The commemoration will be observed –indeed celebrated –by Francis meeting with Bartholomew, the successor of Athenagoras as ecumenical patriarch. This is a very different type of pilgrimage.

Although the pope will go to Jerusalem, there will be no trip or photo-ops to Nazareth, Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes or the Sea of Galilee, all important places for pilgrims.

Instead the pope will meet with the ecumenical patriarch in Jerusalem and they will sign a joint statement. They will then meet at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, enter together and pray together.

The following day they will meet and pray at the Mount of Olives, the place of the Garden of Gethsemane. While all of this might seem anti-climactic for the average Christian, this non-conventional pilgrimage is immensely important.

For almost 1,000 years, the Church consisted of five great patriarchates: Jerusalem, Antioch (modern Turkey), Alexandria in Egypt, Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Rome. The most important of these were Rome and Constantinople.

Traditionally Rome traced its origins to Sts. Peter and Paul, Constantinople to St. Andrew, "the first called" (John 1.35-40).

Historically, there were always both theological and political differences between the different patriarchates. As the two most powerful patriarchates, Rome and Constantinople often disagreed with one another, but communion between them was maintained.

Differences between Rome and Constantinople reached a peak when Pope Leo IX (c. 1000-54) sent Cardinal Humbert with letters to Ecumenical Patriarch Michael Cerularius (c. 1000-59). To put it mildly, the pope's letters were not well received and the cardinal excommunicated the ecumenical patriarch, who, in turn, excommunicated him and his entourage.

The "Great Schism" had begun and the Eastern and Western churches have been divided, often bitterly, for almost 1,000 years.

The meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I in Jerusalem 1964 was, therefore, not a meeting of "old friends." It was a brave and prophetic act on the part of the two to overcome 1,000 years of hostilities. It was the first time a pope had met with an ecumenical patriarch since the ill-fated Council of Florence.


As a result of their meeting, Paul VI and Athenagoras developed a deep mutual respect and friendship.

As a further result of the meeting in Jerusalem, relations between the two churches have slowly but steadily improved. In 1965, in a symbolic gesture, the pope and patriarch rescinded the mutual excommunications of their 11th-century predecessors.

On Oct. 28, 1967, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras issued a joint statement, which, while recognizing serious obstacles, courageously stressed the great points of agreement and called for work to restore communion between the two ancient churches.

Since the meeting in Jerusalem in 1965, every year on June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, patrons of Rome, the ecumenical patriarchate sends a delegation to the Vatican for the celebration. On Nov. 30, the feast of St. Andrew, patron of Constantinople, the Holy See sends a delegation to the ecumenical patriarchate.

Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the successors of Paul VI, have visited the Phanar, the seat of the ecumenical patriarchate in Istanbul. Ecumenical patriarchs Dmitrios and Bartholomew, the successors of Athenagoras, have visited the Vatican.


The meeting between Francis and Bartholomew is extremely important. The fact the Holy See stresses that it is the principal purpose of the pope's visit to the Middle East and Holy Land underlines the significance of the event.

As a celebration of the anniversary of the meeting 50 years ago, the meeting in May is a looking back. But it is far more than that. It is as historic as the meeting half a century ago.

It is the commitment of both Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to take the next step on the pilgrimage toward unity that their predecessors initiated courageously. This renewed collaboration is crucial if Christians are to survive the instability in the region.

(Carl Hétu is the national director of Catholic Near East Welfare Association in Canada. Founded in 1926 by Pope Pius XI, CNEWA works for, through and with the Eastern churches throughout the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India and Eastern Europe. Visit: www.cnewa.ca)