Pilgrimage Toward Unity: Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in Jerusalem (1964) Based on Correspondence and Archives

by John Chryssavgis

In January 1964, two Christian prelates broke a silence of centuries with a simple gesture of embrace and a few gentle words. A little-noticed historic meeting in Jerusalem between Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI reflected the simple dominical prayer and commandment by Christ "that His disciples may be one" (John 17.21); but what began was a journey of exceptional transformation in the relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, two "sister churches," which had shared an entire millennium of common doctrine and spiritual tradition, followed by an entire millennium of division and alienation.

Before the two prelates met, the Ecumenical Patriarch would wittily – albeit at once so tragically and truthfully, mystically and realistically – respond to reporters asking about the purpose of their meeting: "I came here to say ‘good morning' to my beloved brother, the Pope. You must remember that it has been five hundred and twenty-five years since we have spoken to one another!"[1] At the dawn of a new era of positive relations between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, the Athenagoras' spur-of-the-moment prophesy echoes Maya Angelou's celebrated poetry:

Here, on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

. . . And into your brother's face

. . . And say simply

Very simply

With hope –

Good morning.[2]

Thus it was that, in the brief space of less than forty-eight hours, from January 5-6, 1964, His Holiness the late Pope Paul commenced a historical visit to the Holy Land, establishing a tradition subsequently honored by his successors. It was the first time a Roman pontiff traveled abroad for over a century, the first time a Roman pontiff flew in an airplane, and the first time a Roman pontiff visited Jerusalem.

The Pope's journey, however, was much more than a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the focal point of reverence and travel for adherents of all the Abrahamic faiths. Christian leaders and faithful have visited Jerusalem since at least the fourth century, encouraged by the holy Emperor Constantine and his saintly mother Helen, recognizing its association with the early apostles, saints and martyrs but most especially its significance as the place where God's feet once walked when His Word assumed flesh and dwelt among us." So, too, Pope Paul traveled to Bethlehem (where Christ was born), Nazareth (where Christ grew up) and Jerusalem (where Christ died and rose).

Nevertheless, the "pilgrim pope" was also the "ecumenical pope" inasmuch as his historical visit was a unique occasion for an extraordinary and pioneering encounter with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, not only did Pope Paul bring a successful conclusion to the revolutionary Second Vatican Council in 1965, but he also brought to fruition and realization the ecumenical overture to the Orthodox Christian Church.

Thus, on January 5, 1964, Pope Paul VI met with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras on the Mount of Olives. It was the first time the Western pontiff and the Eastern primate – the universal leader of the Western Church and the spiritual leader of the Eastern Church, the Pope of Rome and the Archbishop of New Rome – met face-to-face since 1438 at the Council of Florence. And the venue for the encounter was on the Mount of Olives, the very place where our Lord Jesus Christ, the Great High-Priest, addressed His Father on the night of His betrayal for the unity of His followers, boldly and passionately praying that "His disciples may be one," ut unum sint. (John 17.21)

First Steps to Transformation

Prior to this groundbreaking meeting of the two prelates fifty years ago, for many centuries the Eastern and Western Churches were not in formal contact and shared very little official communication, especially after what became known as the Great Schism of 1054. There were two brief occasions of encounter and dialogue regarding reunification during the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, but these left behind feelings of bitterness rather than hopefulness, at least for the Orthodox Christians of the East. The estrangement was of course markedly accentuated and apparent after the tragic events of the Crusades in the late twelfth-early thirteenth century.

Mindful of this extraordinary and even bitter history, Patriarch Athenagoras commissioned the newly-elected Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America in 1959 to travel to Rome in order to meet with the "charismatic" and "angelic" – as he was widely known[3] – Pope John XXIII, who had just months earlier announced the convocation of the Second Vatican Council that later began in 1962. When Iakovos visited the Pope on March 17, 1959, it was the first encounter between a representative of the Patriarch and the Pope of Rome since May, 1547; only one month later, a representative from the Vatican would visit the Phanar to meet with Patriarch Athenagoras.[4]

Then, in the middle of the twentieth century, Athenagoras – formerly Archbishop of North and South America and then Ecumenical Patriarch, a man committed to the fullness of truth and convinced of the ecumenical mandate of the Orthodox Church – undertook the inspiring, albeit daring initiative of writing a personal letter to Pope John XXIII on May 30, 1963,[5] wishing him a speedy recovery from illness, a simple gesture of concern between two individuals. It was the first time in some 400 years that either a Pope or a Patriarch communicated directly with his counterpart. In personal conversations, Patriarch Athenagoras often spoke of the same Pope adapting the opening words of the Gospel of John: "There was a man sent from God whose name was John." (John 1.6) In a letter addressed to Patriarch Athenagoras on December 30, 1963, as well as in his response to the Ecumenical Patriarch on the Mount of Olives on January 6, 1964, Pope Paul VI recalled the Patriarch's application of these words to John XXIII and referred to it as "a flash of intuition."

After a letter signed by Metropolitan Maximos of Sardis in the name of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, congratulating Pope Paul VI on his election and new "ministry in the sacred and sister Church of Rome, for the advancement of the spirit of unity within the Christian world" (September 9, 1963), the Pope responded in what was the first handwritten letter from a Pope to an Ecumenical Patriarch since 1584,[6] acknowledging his commitment "to contribute toward the restoration of complete unity among Christians." (September 20, 1963) In turn, the Ecumenical Patriarchate officially published the papal letter in its official bulletin under the title "The Two Sister Churches," the first modern use of an ancient expression belonging to St. Ignatius of Antioch and describing relations between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople; the same terminology would also enter the vocabulary of the Second Vatican Council.

Upon learning of the announcement on January 6, 1963, of the imminent visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land, Patriarch Athenagoras preached on the same day to a large congregation in a church of a local Istanbul neighborhood, where he was celebrating the Divine Liturgy for the feast-day of St. Nicholas on December 6 and joyfully explained the significance of this visit, observing that "it would be an act of divine providence if, on the occasion of the papal journey, the heads of all the holy Churches of Christ, in the East and West alike, of the three major Confessions,[7] were together to express contrition . . . tears . . . and prayers for the reconciliation of all people in accordance with His will."[8] On December 14, 1963, Patriarch Athenagoras communicated with all heads of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches[9] in order to inform them of his decision to go to Jerusalem; most of these Churches responded positively.[10]

Nonetheless, while extraordinary, this admission was not in fact exceptional. In a letter dated January 14, 1964, to the clergy and laity of his archdiocese, "describing the momentous meeting" of the two prelates in Jerusalem only days earlier, Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America and Canada observed: "Already as early as 1949, namely since the time that he ascended the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople, His All-Holiness our Patriarch, expressed his desire to meet personally with the Roman Pontiff. He later repeated this desire to Pope John XXIII, the successor to Pope Pius XII. Finally, he expressed the same desire in person in the Church of St. Nicholas at Cibali (Constantinople) on December 6, the day after it was announced that Paul VI would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land."[11]

Only days, then, after this spontaneous and inspired expression, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras assigned two representatives (Metropolitans Meliton of Ilioupolis and Theira, and Athenagoras of Thyateira [Great Britain]) to visit the Vatican, where in an address to the Pope Metropolitan Athenagoras noted that "perhaps it is a matter of divine inspiration that on the one hand Pope Paul and on the other Patriarch Athenagoras were ascending the mountain of the Lord, while Christians throughout the world were praying that the two might meet at the summit of this mountain . . . Peter and Andrew were brothers. Yet, for centuries they have not communicated with one another. Behold, now they are revealing a mutual desire and wish for exchange and encounter. This wish is none other than the Lord's command and the Christian people's nostalgia." (December 28, 1963) Pope Paul VI responded in writing to the Ecumenical Patriarch, stating that the Patriarch's words "struck a profound chord in his heart" and that "any impediments arising from process and details are dispersed by the common desire for encounter. For wherever the divine Spirit and God's love prevail, truly all challenges may be overcome." (December 30, 1963)

The same Patriarchal delegates were also to meet with Papal representatives in order, as per the written request by Patriarch Athenagoras to finalize the details of the imminent meeting in Jerusalem.[12] In the official report to the Holy and Great Synod, dated January 3, 1964, Metropolitan Athenagoras[13] of Thyateira [Great Britain] recorded his meetings with Cardinal Cicognani of the Vatican's department for external affairs. Pope Paul personally conveyed his wish that the Lord's Prayer and the seventeenth chapter of St. John's Gospel with Christ's prayer for the Apostles be recited in Greek and Latin during the encounter in the Holy Lands. During his brief stay in Rome, Archbishop Athenagoras celebrated the Divine Liturgy at the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Andrew on Sunday, December 29, 1963, where the serving deacon was Fr. Bartholomew,[14] current Ecumenical Patriarch.

The Melting Away of Silence

Thus ensued the historic meeting of the Pope and the Patriarch in Jerusalem on January 5, 1964,[15] an encounter and event that was truly remarkable and momentous, albeit somewhat unexpected and unplanned. This was the first time in some 525 years – and only the second time in well over 1000, possibly even 1900 years! – that an Ecumenical Patriarch was meeting face-to-face with a Roman Pontiff. At the Council of Florence in 1438-39, Archbishop Joseph II of Constantinople met with Pope Eugene IV on March 8, 1438; the Patriarch was in attendance for most of the conciliar sessions, although he died in the final days of the council. During the previous effort toward reconciliation of the two churches, at the Council of Lyons in 1274, Ecumenical Patriarch Joseph was not in attendance; indeed, that entire gathering was more a political than an ecclesiastical event, orchestrated by the Roman Pope in association with the Byzantine Emperor. Prior to the twentieth century, in fact, there were very few, if almost no face-to-face meetings between the two leaders of the Eastern and Western Church.[16] Diplomatic encounters between the two sees were almost always enacted through representatives.

The announcement of the encounter took most people by surprise, including well-intentioned theological analysts.[17] For instance, the renowned historian Fr. Georges Florovsky underlined an "ecumenism in time" (as a discernment by the various Christian denominations of a common background in the apostolic tradition) rather than an "ecumenism in space" (as an agreement by Christian confessions as they are), emphasizing a "reintegration of mind" rather than a mere reconciliation of actions.[18] After all, "as the late Fr. Georges Florovsky liked to repeat, the authentic catholicity of the Church must include both East and West."[19] Thus, with regard to the meeting in Jerusalem five decades ago, Fr. Florovsky noted: "In any case, the meeting of the patriarchs was an unexpected event, almost a surprise. Few were prepared for it inwardly, psychologically and spiritually, even among those who were ready to welcome it sincerely." While some embraced it with joy, as a favorable sign, for others it was troubling, causing alarm and suspicion. However, for the more moderate and discerning, including Florovsky himself, "[t]he Palestinian meeting of the Patriarchs – of the new and the old Rome, for a long time and still divided – [was] a timely reminder, and a double reminder: of the fact of separation, and of the task of unity. A reminder and a call . . ."[20]

Archbishop Iakovos, a confidant and coworker of the Ecumenical Patriarch, was less fearful and more hopeful in his "personal impressions and comments about the significance of the historic meeting": "The full import of the meetings on January 5th and 6th will not be revealed until much later. No one can know at present what these two prelates exchanged in their private conversations, what thoughts they shared with one another, or if they came to some agreement on what the two churches of the East and West should do in the near or more distant future . . . I have, however, every reason to believe that their encounter was a meeting in Christ and a mutual outpouring of spirit and soul in His presence."[21]

On January 5, 1964, at 9.30pm, the first contact was held in the Apostolic Delegation residence on the magnificent Mount of Olives, where the Pope awaited and received the Patriarch. The two leaders embraced one another in a gracious historical gesture that – to quote the official report submitted subsequently to the Holy and Sacred Synod on January 20, 1964 – "melted away centuries of silence between their respective Churches. A milestone and the dawn of a new Christendom was consecrated at that moment, when the attention of the entire Christian world was focused on the City of love and reconciliation, while the hearts of all well-intentioned people were beating in anticipation as they waited to hear the message of unity and fraternity in Christ." As they entered the formal reception hall hand-in-hand, the Pope took the throne on the left and signaled to the Patriarch to be seated on an identical throne on the right.

There followed a fourteen-minute private meeting, during which the two prelates understood that "it would take a long time for the wealth of impressions and emotions to be fully articulated." They promised to "deal openly with one another, to speak their minds honestly, to express their thoughts about the constitution of the church, even if one has evolved differently to the other in two or three points of doctrine." At the same time, both leaders recognized that they were faced with "a difficult task because of people's mentality and psychology," which would resist their ecumenical openings. Nonetheless, they pledged not to allow "questions of prestige and primacy, or matters related to discipline, honor, privilege and ambition" to interfere with their goal "to discern the truth," but rather "to cherish the church" (Athenagoras) and "to serve." (Paul VI)[22]

Immediately afterward, the entourages[23] of the two leaders were invited into the main hall, where Patriarch Athenagoras addressed the Pope in Greek (a French translation was read by the Chief Secretary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate); the Pope responded in French, addressing the assembly in a personal tone and offering a golden chalice to the Patriarch as a symbol of the unity that they seek in common. The first meeting concluded with the recital of the Lord's Prayer in Greek and Latin.

A second meeting was held at 10am on the following day, January 6, 1964, in the summer residence of the Patriarch of Jerusalem on the momentous Mount of Olives, where upon his return from Bethlehem Pope Paul visited Patriarch Athenagoras. It is on this sacred mountain ridge – famous from the time of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE – that prophets are buried, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19.41) and regularly withdrew for prayer (Luke 22.39-40), as well as where he set out on his entry to Jerusalem as King of Israel seated on a donkey (John 12.12-19), spent the night of His betrayal (Matt. 26.35-46) and later ascended to heaven (Acts 1.9-12). And it is on this mountain that tradition predicts the second coming of Christ will take place.

The two leaders held a private conference for ten minutes; once more, a few minutes of personal conversation broke a silence of centuries. After this, the Pope addressed the Patriarch in the presence of their respective entourages. The Patriarch offered a gold encolpion (pectoral medallion) and a special cross to the Pope, the latter being a souvenir from the recent millennial celebrations on Mount Athos in the summer of 1963. The meeting was sealed by the recital of the seventeenth chapter of St. John's Gospel by the two leaders as well as the repetition of the Lord's Prayer in Latin and Greek. Finally, the two prelates exchanged an embrace on the terrace and blessed the crowds, which had gathered in the garden below. At 4pm, the Pope departed for Rome, while the Patriarch left for Bethlehem at 11am in order to concelebrate the Feast of the Nativity with Patriarch Benedictos of Jerusalem in the ancient basilica of Bethlehem according the Julian calendar adhered to in the Holy Land.

In his address to the Pope, Patriarch Athenagoras noted: "It was in this holy land that the voice of the Lord was heard and treasured, proclaiming the gospel of reconciliation and salvation; only moments before His passion, he prayed with sweat for the preservation of His disciples in truth and unity . . . Christianity has for centuries lived in the night of division. Its eyes are heavy in beholding the darkness. May this encounter of ours be the dawning of a bright and sacred day, when the coming Christian generations will share the same Cup . . . Look how in embracing one another, together we encounter the Lord. Let us, therefore, continue the sacred way that opens before us. Then He will approach us and journey with us, as He once did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, indicating the way we should walk and rendering our steps swift toward our desired goal." (January 5, 1964)

In response on the following day, January 6, 1964, Pope Paul VI underlined the importance of "the Catholic Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, through their highest and holy representatives, meeting once again, after so many centuries of silence and hope." He recognized that this encounter was "one of [Pope John XXIII's] most beloved aspirations, which he constantly expressed in prayer to God until the end of his life." He also added: "The ways toward unity are long and permeated with many difficulties. Nevertheless, these roads incline toward each other and converge in the sources of the Gospel."

In their joint communiqué, the two Church leaders declared: "As two pilgrim-prelates, with our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, the source of unity and peace, we pray that this encounter will prove to be a sign and foretaste of many similar occasions in the future, for the glory of God and the enlightenment of all humanity. After a silence of so many centuries, we have met here today with a mutual desire to fulfill the will of our Lord and promulgate the ancient truth of His Gospel entrusted to the Church." (January 6, 1964)

Archbishop Iakovos characterized the event as a "communion of love": "The addresses of the two leaders, the warmth and candor of their words, their gestures and movements, their joint recitation of the Lord's Prayer, their reading in common of the seventeenth chapter of St. John's Gospel, and their shared blessing – from our Patriarchate as well as from Mount of Olives on the morning of January 6th – on the clergy and other faithful: all these bear witness to one thing alone, namely the communion of love, which is the necessary prerequisite for all other communion between the Churches . . . Nothing else took place: neither formal discussions nor comprises or any such conventionalities. The communion of love is what prevails today between East and West after a lapse of many centuries. And my personal wish is that this communion may be further cultivated, acquire still more solid form, if possible, becoming the conscience and experience of our Churches so as to lead, on the day and hour ordained by the Lord, to the stability of the holy churches of God and the union of all, just as we Orthodox all pray unceasingly and sincerely."[24]

A Dialogue of Love Begins

Over the next ten days, the two prelates exchanged an additional four written communications, something inconceivable only six months earlier. Thus, the historical "dialogue of love" – a term coined by Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon – between Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI established the basis for gradually and honestly breaking down barriers of centuries. This was followed a little less than two years later – in another joint declaration, which was read publicly at St. Peter's during the Second Vatican Council and in the Patriarchal Church at the Phanar – with the unprecedented "mutual lifting of the anathemas" on December 7, 1965,[25] when the same two prelates "removed from both the memory and the midst of the Church the sentences of excommunication" dating back to 1054.[26]

In turn, this was followed within two years by the establishment of a paramount and hitherto uninterrupted tradition, namely the exchange of formal annual delegations at the respective Patronal Feasts of the two "sister churches," which first commenced in 1969 – in Rome on June 29 for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul and in Istanbul on November 30 for the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. These momentous initiatives were the prelude to and culminated almost a decade later with the creation – during the papal visit to the Phanar on November 30, 1979 – of the joint international commission for theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.[27] Thus, the Holy See and fourteen autocephalous Orthodox Churches commenced the official theological "dialogue of truth" on May 29, 1980, during the tenure of the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, and the successor to Pope Paul VI, the late Pope John Paul II. Thus began "a dialogue on an equal footing," the process for examining jointly, diligently and openly the doctrinal differences between our two sister Churches.

One of the more spiritual and moving results of the more favorable relations between the two Churches has been the return of sacred relics, which originally were treasured in the East but were relocated to the West following the various crusades. Among these precious, albeit partial relics relocated were those of St. Andrew to Patras (September 1964, by Pope Paul VI), St. Titus to Crete (May 1966, by Pope Paul VI), as well as Saints Gregory the Theologian (December 2004, by Pope John Paul II) and John Chrysostom (December 2004, by Pope John Paul II) to Constantinople.

By way of conclusion, it is fitting to reiterate and underscore the words of Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras upon their return to their respective Sees. In a brief telegraph to the Patriarch dated January 8, 1964, Pope Paul described the "unforgettable pilgrimage" that formed the context of their encounter and conveyed his "prayer that God may deem worthy to multiply it for the benefit of all Christianity."[28] In his brief response to the Pope, the Patriarch "addressed a fraternal greeting in the fellowship of love, wholeheartedly expressing his hope that the sacred voice that spoke so many good things to our hearts from the All-Holy Sepulcher may guide and strengthen the entire Christian world in the realization of God's holy will." (January 10, 1964)

As for Pope Paul VI, he addressed the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square to welcome him back to Rome on January 6, 1964: "You must appreciate that my trip was not just a unique spiritual event. It has proven to be an event of great historical significance. It is a link in the eternal chain of tradition. Who knows? It could also be the herald of new events of great and abundant benefit to the Church and humanity."

One year later, in a telegraph to the Pope dated January 2, 1965, Patriarch Athenagoras "recall[ed] the first anniversary of that blessed encounter"; and, in remembrance of the Pope's remarks in French, bid him "au revoir."

May 2014: A Reaffirming Embrace

Relations between the two "sister churches" have improved so dramatically – and, despite setbacks in regional circumstances and tensions in theological dialogue – that communication and contact between regional and global leaders as well as even between local parishes and individual practitioners are today almost taken for granted. Nonetheless, the personal and spontaneous decision by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to attend the inaugural mass of the current Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square on March 19, 2013, sent commentators scurrying to the history books. The media inaccurately presented the event as completely unprecedented in the history of the two Churches since the schism that separated eastern and western Christendom in the eleventh century. However, the exchange of the kiss of peace, the liturgical symbol of unity among Christians, between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was an extraordinary expression of the goodwill between the two leaders for greater cooperation and fuller reconciliation.

Only three months later, in his address to Pope Francis during the formal visit of the Patriarchal Delegation to the Vatican led by His Eminence Metropolitan John of Pergamon – Orthodox co-chair of the international theological commission for dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches – on the occasion of the Patronal Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (June 29, 2013), Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – himself once a protégé of the late Patriarch Athenagoras – underlined his commitment to the efforts toward unity:

"Behold, with confident anticipation, we now contemplate our mutual journey to the common cup. We are not ignorant of the existing impediments to the desirable unity of all Christians. Nevertheless, we shall not cease working with all our strength and aspiring to the All-Holy Spirit. According to Gregory the Theologian, Archbishop of Constantinople, ‘this Spirit is most prudent and extremely loving; if it should discover fishermen, it can lure to Christ the entire world, captivating them by the fishing net of the word,' just as Peter did. Indeed, ‘it can transform the passion of fanatical persecutors and create a Paul in the place of Saul, captivating them with the same intensity of piety as they had been captivated by evil. Such is the Spirit of meekness.' Today, the same Spirit also renders us ‘bold heralds' of Christian unity, for whose sake we ceaselessly ‘bend our knees before the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. For this Spirit always was, is, and shall be; it is without beginning and without end.' Thus it shall always inspire in us the desire for unity in simplicity and the salvation of all."

By way of affirmation and confirmation of this proposed journey, the Ecumenical Patriarch repeated the same invitation during the Thronal feast of St. Andrew the Apostle on November 30, 2013, addressing the official delegation of Pope Francis to the Phanar led by Kurt Cardinal Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Roman Catholic co-chair of the international theological commission for dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches: "His Holiness brother Pope Francis and our Modesty have already exchanged ideas and opinions on these matters during our encounter in Rome. Indeed, as a first step of outreach toward the world, as an affirmation of our desire to increase our efforts toward Christian and peaceful reconciliation, we are planning a meeting in Jerusalem – to demonstrate our common will to advance along the path paved by our predecessors – in the new year that is upon us, which marks the fiftieth anniversary since the time when the two great contemporary church leaders, Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, met in the place where the sacred feet of our Lord once walked. In so doing, they carved a new historical path, which milestone we must honor in spirit and truth, surrendering the rest to the will of our Lord. As two ecclesiastical and spiritual leaders, we shall meet in order to address an appeal and invitation to all people, irrespective of faith and virtue, for a dialogue that ultimately aims at the knowledge of Christ's truth and the taste of the immense joy, which attends their acquaintance with Christ. However, this can ultimately only be achieved through the restoration of an inward separation from one another and through the unity of all people in Christ, which is truly the fullness of love and joy."

In an interview for Vatican Radio on January 18, 2014, Kurt Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity described the upcoming meeting between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as  "the most important [ecumenical] opportunity for 2014" and expressed his hope that the meeting in Jerusalem "between the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis can be a new opportunity, with as much engagement and passion for unity as was present in 1964.[29]

At the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, above the Sancta Porta, which the Pope opens only on jubilee celebrations, a marble inscription in Latin and Greek reads: "For the reconciliation of full communion between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, there was a meeting of prayer in this basilica between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I on October 26, 1967, and between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Dimitrios I on December 6, 1987. To God alone is due honor and worship to the ages."

Athenagoras and Paul VI were great visionaries; their "great spirits could see into the future." (Wisdom of Sirach 48.24) Another important step toward "reconciliation of full communion" will take place on May 25, 2014, with the encounter between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

[1] In the biography of Patriarch Athenagoras by Demetrios Tsakonas, A Man Sent by God: The Life of Patriarch Athenagoras, Brookline MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1977, 56.

[2] Maya Angelou, "On the Pulse of Morning," New York: Random House, 1993, n.p.

[3] See Evangelos Theodorou, "The contribution of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras to the reconciliation of fraternal relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches," in I. Anastasiou (ed.), Athenagoras I: Ecumenical Patriarch, Ioannina: Society of Epirotic Studies, 1975, p. 312.

[4] See E.J. Stormon, Towards the Healing of Schism: The Sees of Rome and Constantinople (1958-1984), Mahwah NJ: Paulist Press, 1987, 9.

[5] Communications and correspondence between the Vatican and the Phanar are translated directly from the official volume edited by a mixed commission comprising Archim. Damaskinos Papandreou and Archim. Bartholomew Archontonis [currently the Ecumenical Patriarch], as well as Père Pierre Duprey and Père Christophe Dumont, Tomos Agapis: Vatican-Phanar (1958-1970), Rome and Istanbul, 1971. Translations of the "Volume of Charity," also containing certain supplementary items, appeared in Spanish (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1973), German (Vienna: Pro Oriente, 1978), and French (Paris: Cerf "Semeurs," 1984). An augmented English edition and translation is available by E.J. Stormon, Towards the Healing of Schism: The Sees of Rome and Constantinople (1958-1984).

[6] In 1584, Pope Gregory XIII communicated with Patriarch Jeremiah II about the reform of the calendar; the new (Gregorian) calendar was formally instituted in 1582.

[7] The spontaneous reaction by Athenagoras, as well as his express desire for leaders of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches to meet together in the hope and prayer of reconciliation demonstrates the openness of his heart and mind. In the end, it was only the leaders of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches that met in Jerusalem.

[8] Also cited in the formal Announcement from the Chief Secretariat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, dated December 6, 1963, which however omits the phrase "of the three major Confessions." A few days later, on December 10, 1963, Mgr Pierre Duprey (1922-2007), then Under-Secretary of the Secretariat for Christian Unity (newly founded in 1960 by Pope John XXIII), visited Patriarch Athenagoras to provide details of the Papal journey to the Holy Land. [From the minutes of the Chief Secretary at the Phanar, dated January 11, 1963.]

[9] Aristeides Panotis observes that this communication was for the most part a conventional notification, rather than a request for consent. See his book Paul VI and Athenagoras I: Peacemakers, Athens: Dragan Institute of Europe, 1971. [In Greek] Panotis adds that congratulatory letters were received from the Patriarchs of Antioch and Moscow, Serbia and Romania, the Archbishop of Cyprus and other Orthodox Churches.

[10] The report by Metropolitan Athenagoras to the Holy and Sacred Synod in Constantinople, dated January 3, 1964, notes the negative stance and vehement opposition of the Patriarchate of Moscow to the preparations and forthcoming meeting in Jerusalem between the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch, as these criticisms appeared in the Italian newspaper "Il Tempo," claiming that the event was political in nature. In his report, Metropolitan Athenagoras highlighted his response to journalists about the "spiritual nature" of the event, which "has no political motive. Any other journalistic suspicions cannot in any way shake the absolute unity and cooperation on matters of faith among sister Orthodox Churches because what unites them is not politics, but faith and their common concern for the promotion and protection of its integrity. The encounter between the Pope and the Patriarch has a merely spiritual character inasmuch as both leaders are traveling to venerate and meet at the empty tomb, which remains a manifestation of Christ's victory." The media was in general very favorable about the encounter in Jerusalem, which led Patriarch Athenagoras to issue a communiqué on January 22, 1964, after the conclusion of the journey to the Holy Land, expressing his "warm gratitude for the contribution of the local and international press, both daily and periodical as well as television and radio in promoting this historical event and informing public opinion." From the archives of the Chief Secretariat at the Phanar.

[11] Demetrios Constantelos (ed.), Encyclicals and Documents of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1976, 788-9. My translation.

[12] The personal letter from the Patriarch to the Pope (Prot. No. 1084, dated December 26, 1963), was read aloud in Greek by the Pope upon receiving it in his hands. [In the Patriarchal archives.] Among the agreed details for the imminent encounter, signed in Rome on December 30, 1963, was an exchange of meetings between the Pope and Patriarch Benedictos of Jerusalem, which took place on January 5 and 6, 1964.

[13] Metropolitan Meliton of Ilioupolis and Theira was finally unable to travel to Rome inasmuch as he was not given the necessary permit to leave Turkey in order to participate in the Patriarchal delegation and the meetings with the Papal representatives, which took place between December 28-30, 1963.

[14] In the official report preserved in the Chief Secretariat at the Phanar.

[15] The Ecumenical Patriarch and his entourage traveled from Rhodes to Jerusalem on January 5, 1963, in a private plane provided by Aristotle Onassis. On the same day, prior to departing for Jerusalem, after the Divine Liturgy, Patriarch Athenagoras held a memorial service in honor of the late President John F. Kennedy, who had recently died on November 20, 1963. At the airport in Jerusalem, the Patriarch was met by King Hussein of Jordan and Patriarch Benedictos of Jerusalem. In addition to prelates and archons of the Phanar and professors G. Konidaris, P. Chrestou and D. Tsakonas, the patriarchal entourage included Archbishop Iakovos of America and Archbishop Ezekiel of Australia. From the official report by members of the patriarchal entourage, submitted to the Holy and Sacred Synod on January 20, 1964, upon their return from Jerusalem.

[16] For example, only once did a Pope attend an ecumenical council: Pope Vigilius was present during the Fifth Ecumenical Council, held in Constantinople in 553, but he was actually in the city under house arrest. I am grateful to Prof. George Demacopoulos of Fordham University for this information.

[17] There were also a good number of ill-intentioned scholars, such as Konstantinos Mouratidis, Professor of Canon Law at the University of Athens; see his book, entitled The Ecumenical Movement: the contemporary great temptation of Orthodoxy, Athens, 1973. On the other side, Prof. Nikos Nissiotis claimed that Patriarch Athenagoras "only offended theologians, whose work is restricted to an infertile repetition of scholastic formulations, who are confined to hiding behind monolithic dogmatisms, who are isolated from life, and unrelated to people's expectations." See his article, entitled "Athenagoras: ecumenical patriarch for all people and all churches," in Apostolos Titos, Herakleion Crete, 1972, p. 9. [In Greek]

[18] See his chapter entitled "The Orthodox Churches and the Ecumenical Movement Prior to 1910," in G. Florovsky, Christianity and Culture, Belmont MA: Nordland Publishing, 1974, esp. 29 and 78. Also see his article "Primitive Tradition and the Traditions," in William S. Morris (ed.), The Unity We Seek, Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1962, 28-38.

[19] [Metropolitan] John Zizioulas [of Pergamon], Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985, in his introduction.

[20] Originally published in Russian as "Знамение Пререкаемо," Вестник Русского Студенческого Христианского Движения, nos. 72-73, I-II, 1964, 1-7. See chapter three below.

[21] Constantelos, op. cit., 789. My translation.

[22] From an "off air" discussion between Pope Paul and Patriarch Athenagoras, who were unaware that their microphones were still on. See Federico Serana, "An ‘off-air' extraordinary story: the secret dialogue between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras," in Notizie Italia News, January 7, 2014, Original source: www.incrocinews.it.

[23] Of the members of these entourages, the sole remaining delegate is Metropolitan Evangelos of Perghe, then the young attending patriarchal deacon.

[24] Constantelos, op. cit., 790. My translation.

[25] The expression of regret by the two prelates for actions on the part of their respective Churches that ultimately led to the formal excommunication and schism, was observed in a joint declaration, which was a major event of the Second Vatican Council. Patriarch Athenagoras referred to the divisive excommunications as "a heavy and sinful burden." See his address to Pope Paul in St. Peter's Basilica during his visit to Rome on October 26, 1967.

[26] What is often overlooked is that the excommunications in fact only affected the papal delegates under Cardinal Humbert on the one side and the Patriarch Michael Caerularius and his cohorts on the other side. Never were the two church sweepingly excommunicated. Nor again were the excommunications technically valid on the Roman Catholic side, since Pope Leo, who had commissioned the delegates, had died before the unfortunate actions occurred. Nonetheless, 1054 remains the date attributed to the schism between the two churches. Of course, the "lifting of the anathemas" never implied restoration of full union between the two churches – whether doctrinal, sacramental, or canonical – but it was an immense symbolical gesture of their remorse and goodwill for wrongdoings of the past. In his address to the Cardinals and members of the Bishops' Conference in Rome (October 26, 1967), Patriarch Athenagoras declared that "the time of reunion may well come slowly; but the time of love is the present." On the first anniversary of the "lifting of the anathemas," Patriarch Athenagoras wrote to Paul VI: "this is the time for Christian courage. Let us love one another in order to confess our former common faith."

[27] Pope John-Paul was the first Bishop of Rome to pay a formal visit to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the occasion of the latter's patronal feast on November 30th, just one year after his papal election. Pope Benedict was elected in 2005 and was invited to visit the Church of Constantinople in 2006, while Pope Francis celebrated his inaugural mass in 2013 and has been invited to visit the Ecumenical Patriarchate in November 2014.

[28]  Archives of the Chief Secretariat at the Phanar.