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As Pope Francis prepared to leave Rome a historic three-day visit to the Holy Land tomorrow, Orthodox and Catholic church voices tried to cool expectations regarding his meeting tomorrow with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I.
The 24-26 May visit forms part of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras, and Pope Paul VI in January 1964.
This morning Pope Francis made a private visit to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to pray and entrust his pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary. After praying for 15 minutes before the image of the Madonna Salus Populi Romani, the Pope left a bouquet of roses in her honour.
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said today that in its dialogue with Israelis and Palestinians, the Holy See wished to see “the right of Israel to exist and to enjoy peace and security within internationally recognised borders; the right of the Palestinian people to have a sovereign and independent homeland, the right to move freely, the right to live in dignity.” He said that Francis would insist on these issues. He also said he hoped the meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew would revive the “flame, this enthusiasm for the ecumenical journey” lit at the Second Vatican Council.
However Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in an interview for the Swiss online paper katholisch-informiert.ch, said that while the visit would deepen the present good Catholic-Orthodox relations, he thought “greater unity between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches will be reached at the Pan-Orthodox Synod in 2016.”
But he insisted that “the four meetings with the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, are clearly at the heart of the whole journey.” The Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi made the same point last week. The recitation together of the Lord’s Prayer in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on Sunday will be … “the great ecumenical novelty of the trip … an historic and extraordinary event,” he said.
However a senior prelate in the Russian Orthodox Church pointed out that the meeting between Francis and Bartholomew – the bishops of Rome and Constantinople – has no special validity for other Orthodox Churches. The Russian Orthodox are not playing any part in the service at the Holy Sepulchre church.
Metropolitan Hilarion, the Moscow Patriarchate’s director of foreign church affairs, also said that the crisis in Ukraine, which has heightened tensions between the Moscow-backed Orthodox Church there and two local Orthodox rivals and the Greek Catholic (“Uniate”) Church, had set back Moscow-Vatican relations that had started to improve under Pope Francis.
Above: Workers hang a poster welcoming Pope Francis on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which he will visit on Sunday before going to Jerusalem. Photo: CNS/Reuters