Pope Francis greets Orthodox patriarch after coronavirus cancels annual visit

Pope Francis celebrates the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul with clergy and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at St. Peter’s Basilica on June 29, 2016. (Alexey Gotovskyi/CNA)

VATICAN CITY (CNA) —Pope Francis extended a special greeting to the Patriarch Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and head of the Orthodox Churches, on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul. The pope made the greeting during Monday’s Angelus message.

Pope Francis arrives at the Mytilene International Airport in Lesbos, Greece, greeted by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople on April 16, 2016. (Credit: © L’Osservatore Romano)

Speaking to the crowd in St. Peter’s square, Pope Francis noted that it is tradition for a delegation from the Patriarchate of Constantinople to visit Rome on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, but that the visit could not happen this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“I spiritually embrace my dear brother, the Patriarch Bartholomew, in the hope that our reciprocal visits may resume as soon as possible,” said Pope Francis.

Sts. Peter and Paul are the patrons of the city of Rome. Traditionally, a Roman delegation makes a return visit to Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople) on St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30. St. Andrew is the patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Marking the feast this year, the pope recalled that the city of Rome has been the home of many of Christianity’s earliest and most famous martyrs. 

“As we celebrate the solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul, I would like to remember the many martyrs who have been decapitated, burned alive and killed, especially in the time of the Emperor Nero, on this very land you are now,” said Pope Francis. “This is the bloodstained land of our Christian brothers. Tomorrow we will commemorate them.” 

Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens throw laurel wreaths into the sea, where thousands of migrants have lost their lives. (Credit: © L’Osservatore Romano)

Earlier in the day, at Mass, Francis also mentioned his sadness that the annual visit with the delegation from the Ecumenical Patriarch could not take place. He said that he felt a connection “in his heart” to Patriarch Bartholomew when he visited the tomb of St. Peter. 

“[The Orthodox Christian delegation] are here with us,” he said, even though they were not able to be present in person in Rome. 

The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is one of the Churches which composes the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Ecumenical Patriarch is regarded as “primus inter pares” —first among equals —for Eastern Orthodox Christians. 

On last year’s feast, Francis presented the delegation from Constantinople with a reliquary believed to contain bone fragments of St. Peter as a gift for Bartholomew. 

The pope took the reliquary from the chapel in the papal apartments, where St. Paul VI had placed the bronze reliquary containing eight bone fragments after they were discovered in a 1952 dig under St. Peter’s Basilica.

Pope Francis arrives at the Mytilene International Airport in Lesbos, Greece, greeted by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople on April 16, 2016. (Credit: © L’Osservatore Romano)

The Orthodox delegation brought the reliquary to Istanbul, where Msgr. Andrea Palmieri, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, personally gave it to Patriarch Bartholomew.

During the visit last year, Francis said told the ecumenical delegation that “the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, which falls on the same day in the liturgical calendars of East and West, invites us to renew the charity that generates unity.”

“I am increasingly convinced that the restoration of full unity between Catholics and Orthodox will come about through respect for specific identities and a harmonious coexistence in legitimate forms of diversity. The Holy Spirit, for that matter, is the one who creatively awakens a multiplicity of gifts, harmonizes them and brings them into authentic unity,” the pope told the Orthodox leaders.

“I consider it valuable in our encounters to share our roots, to rediscover the goodness that the Lord has sown and made grow in each of us, and to share it, learning from one another and helping each other not to fear dialogue and concrete collaboration,” Pope Francis said.

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