On ecumenical, interfaith hopes for Holy Land trip

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Pope Francis is due to depart on Saturday for a three day visit to the Holy Land during which he will visit Jordan, Israel and the State of Palestine. At the heart of the brief but action-packed programme is an encounter in Jerusalem with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Orthodox world, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus. That meeting, in January 1964, marked a vital first step towards reconciliation of Western and Eastern Christianity which had been divided for over a thousand years.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are scheduled to have a brief private encounter and sign a joint declaration, before presiding at an ecumenical prayer service with leaders of other Christian Churches in Jerusalem at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre.

Half a century on from their predecessor’s meeting, just how significant will this encounter be for the future of Catholic- Orthodox relations? And beyond its ecumenical impact, what effect can this papal visit have on the wider interfaith context of the Holy Land today? Philippa Hitchen put those questions to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and head of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.

Listen: On ecumenical, interfaith hopes for Holy Land trip

Q: Beyond being an important anniversary, how significant will this meeting in Jerusalem be?

A: I think it’s very important to commemorate this first meeting between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagorus, it’s the beginning of the dialogue. Now we have 50 years of dialogue of love and dialogue of truth and it’s clear that this visit cannot resolve all the problems of the dialogue of truth, but it will deepen the friendship and the brotherhood, the fraternal relations between the Catholic Church of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople….

Q: I believe the idea came from the Patriarch who suggested it to the Pope on the day of his inauguration?


A: Just before (Francis’ inauguration), he had just invited Pope Benedict to come and commemorate. It’s very important and I think the Ecumenical Patriarch is very engaged to deepen this dialogue with our churches and we have the beautiful tradition of the mutual visits on the feast of our patron Saints Peter and Paul, on June 29th, a high delegation of Constantinople comes to Rome to celebrate with us this feast….on November 30th I go with a delegation to Constantinople for the feast of St Andrew and this is a beautiful tradition.


Q: How important will this encounter be for other Orthodox Christians outside the Greek Orthodox world, because there have been other Orthodox leaders who are not in favour of this meeting?


A: I will not comment on the problems between the different Orthodox, I think it’s very important that they can have this pan-orthodox synod in 2016… I hope it this can bring more unity between the Orthodox Churches because I hope this will be a help also for our dialogue with the Orthodox Church. I think many, many Orthodox are in agreement with this meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope Francis…

Q: It’s also a historic first time that representatives of all the different Christian churches in Jerusalem will pray together inside the church of the Holy Sepulchre – could this be the event that marks a real improvement in ecumenical relations there in the Holy Land?

A: (For) the visit of Paul VI in ‘64 he not only met the Ecumenical Patriarch, but also the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Patriarch of the Apostolic Armenian Church and I’m very grateful that after the private meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch we can have an ecumenical celebration in the church in Jerusalem. I think it’s a very beautiful sign that Orthodox and Catholics can pray together…


Q: Another important focus is the Jewish- Catholics dimension as the Pope visits Yad Vashem and the Western Wall….what are your expectations for these meetings?

A: This meeting with the Jewish people has two levels, first of all the meeting with the authorities of the State of Israel, the president, prime minister and other authorities and I think it’s a very beautiful opportunity to deepen the diplomatic and political relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel. The second level is the meeting with the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem and our commission for the religious relations with the Jews has a long time dialogue with the two chief rabbinates in Jerusalem and I think this is also a good opportunity to deepen this dialogue with a religious dimension and to prepare new steps for the future.

Q: On the political and diplomatic level, there have been frustrations over the slow progress towards a final agreement between Israel and the Holy See – can this visit help to make progress here?

A: I think this is very good for making better the atmosphere, but all the political and diplomatic issues are in the responsibility of the Secretary of State. Our commission is only responsible for the religious dialogue, but we cannot separate these dimensions and every visit of a Holy Father in the Holy Land is an opportunity to prepare a good future

Q: Pope Francis will also celebrate Mass in the Cenacle which has also been the focus of tensions between the different faith communities in Jerusalem?

A: I think that is for us a religious dimension, it’s the place where Jesus feasted the Last Supper with his disciples…. this has only a religious dimension and not a political demonstration.

Q: We’ve seen recent episodes of threats and vandalising of Christian properties – do you think the Pope’s visit can help increase understanding with these extremist groups?

A: I don’t know what the Holy Father will say on this issue but I hope some Jewish people will comment on these things and say that it’s not a possible attitude: we can’t have anti-Semitism and we can’t have anti-Christianism in our world

Q: How important is it that the Pope is taking his friend Rabbi Skorka with him, as well as a Muslim leader from Argentina as well?

A: I think the Francis has many deep relations with the Jews and Muslims in Argentina – I remember just 2 months ago we had a visit of 15 Jews, 15 Muslims and 15 Catholics, they had a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and they wanted to come to greet the Holy Father and this was a beautiful meeting and when the Holy Father will go to the Holy Land with these 3 dimensions, the ecumenical, the relations with Jews and interreligious dimension also with the Muslims, and he can have this help from Argentina, I think it’s a beautiful idea.

Vatican Radio
Source:Source: news.va (May 16, 2014)