If anyone gets credit for bringing Pope Francis I, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to Israel this week, it is All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of over 300 million Orthodox Christian faithful worldwide.
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It all started when Patriarch Bartholomew attended Pope Francis’ investiture last March – the first time that a spiritual head of the Orthodox Christians has attended such a papal inaugural Mass since the great Schism in 1054. Seeing as the moment was historic, Patriarch Bartholomew went one further, suggesting a joint religious road trip of sorts to Jerusalem -- to mark and celebrate the reconciliation between the two churches fifty years ago.
And so it came to pass that -- following in the 1964 footsteps of their predecessors Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI – Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew touched down in Israel this week-- two very senior pilgrims on a joint mission of peace.
The two leaders are scheduled to meet no less than four times during Sunday and Monday. On Sunday they held a private meeting, and also joined together for a service of thanksgiving-- along with the Armenian Patriarch-- at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. On Monday they are scheduled to sign an as yet undisclosed joint declaration and finally, on Monday evening, they will meet at the Mount of Olives and end their two day pilgrimage with, it is expected, a hug. Or, as it is called in these circles, a fraternal embrace of the kind depicted on the official logo for the papal visit of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, patron saints of the churches of Rome and Constantinople.
On Sunday, just a few hours before Pope Francis’ helicopter arrived at Ben Gurion airport, a diverse group of religious leaders gathered, under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee, to officially welcome Patriarch Bartholomew, who arrived from his home in Istanbul two days earlier, together with a 68 person strong international delegation.
Rabbis of all shapes and stripes filtered into the banquet room at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, to be welcomed by AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs David Rosen. Everyone from Chief Rabbi David Lau to Europe's chief rabbi emeritus Rene Sirat to Rabbi Levi Weiman- Kelman, the spiritual leader of Jerusalem progressive Judaism congregation Kol Haneshama were on hand.
The room, which just a few hours ago was filled with tourists in shorts and flip flops, deliberating between the omelets options at the breakfast buffet - was now spruced with flags and banners. Bishop Nektarios and Bishop Dimitros from the Greek orthodox patriarchy in Jerusalem, all in black, were in one corner chatting away with British based Sikh leader, Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh, all in white –while Shaykh Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini, President of CO.RE.IS. (Islamic Religious Community) in Italy leaned in so as not to miss out.
Meanwhile, Patriarch Bartholomew’s delegation seemed just as diverse and colorful as the group welcoming them. Members of the delegation, noted Michael Karloutsos, the Patriarchal trip director, were not only prominent Greek Orthodox and other Orthodox church leaders, but also Catholics, Muslims and Jews from around the world – a symbol and sign of Patriarch Bartholomew open-minded and inclusionary style and vision. And indeed Patriarch Bartholomew’s almost 25 year tenure as the “the first among equals” among the Eastern Orthodox has been characterized by both inter-Christian and inter-religious dialogue, as well as efforts to promote human rights and religious freedom. Archbishop Demetrios, the current archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and John George, a well known New Orleans businessmen and Greek Orthodox philanthropist, as well as Muhtar Kent, a Turkish-American Muslim who is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, and a supporter of the Patriarch Bartholomew, were among the notable delegation members.
Addressing those gathered, Patriarch Bartholomew indicated he had high hopes for the visit. “In 1964, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, two men with open hearts and a vision for unity, met on the Mount of Olives. Something wonderful between Catholic and Orthodox Christians happened then,” said Patriarch Bartholomew, “ . . . and something greater could happen now.”
“This week could be the beginning of a consultation, or a dialogue, or even an understanding that is greater than ourselves and our shared history. We could learn from one another, and recalibrate our relationships to transform the future.”