“On July 7 the Holy Father will travel to Bari, the window on the East where the relics of Saint Nicholas are conserved, for a day of reflection and prayer on the dramatic situation in the Middle East which afflicts many brothers and sisters in faith. He intends to invite to this ecumenical encounter for peace the Heads of Christian Churches and Communities from that region. Pope Francis urges us to prepare now for this even with prayer.” The announcement made on April 25 by the Vatican Press Office was welcomed with “gratitude and joy” by the diocese of Bari, thereby reconfirmed in its ecumenical vocation. The Pope’s decision, pointed out the archbishop of Bari-Bitonto, Monsignor Francesco Cacucci, “has touched the hearts of the diocese and of the entire city”
Your Excellency, why Bari?
The Holy Father’s decision to hold a day of reflection and prayer in Bari follows in the wake of the recognition of Saint Nicholas as the Patron Saint of ecumenism. He is the most worshipped saint in the Eastern and Western worlds and represents the point of reference shared – in particular but not only – by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. This decision somehow highlights a continuity with the events held here over the past years: the visits of Patriarch Bartholomew I, of Metropolitan Hilarion, and, in particular, the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. These events have intensified the relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches in a special way. That’s the reason why Pope Francis has promoted the meeting in the name of St. Nicholas. We are very pleased. Bari, an ecumenical city and the city of Saint Nicholas, welcomes this decision as a great grace of the Lord.
The Holy See’s communiqué reaffirms the importance of the city of Bari not only in its religious dimension but also in its social and political gaze towards the East.
The initiative promoted by the Holy Father is not confined to the religious and ecumenical aspect. In fact it also includes the political dimension, in the highest sense.
The event of July will not be a meeting between Christian Churches. It will be a day devoted to the tragic situation in the Middle-Eastern region, afflicted by war and Christian martyrdom.
The political and religious realms bound together.
In the past two years, Bari has represented an important junction of ecumenical dialogue. You have mentioned the visits of Patriarch Bartholomew I, of Metropolitan HIlarion, and the pilgrimage to Russia of the relics of St. Nicholas.
Bari has a deep-rooted ecumenical vocation. We should remember that the plenary meeting of the joint Catholic-Orthodox Commission was held here in 1987, and that the Orthodox Chapel was first opened in the crypt of the Catholic Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, in 1969. Bari’s ecumenical vocation, in the name of Saint Nicholas, is consolidated. I believe this is what determined the decision of the Holy Father.
Upon the conferral of the “Ecumenical Saint Nicholas Prize of Sacred Theology” by the Apulian theological Faculty, in his Lectio Magistralis Patriarch Bartholomew highlighted “the role played by religions in the creation, promotion and consolidation of a principle of communion and cooperation and mutual understanding”, rejecting fundamentalisms and overcoming “diffidence, violence, genocides.”
Past summer I shared a pilgrimage to Constantinople and Cappadocia with Bartholomew I and we reflected also on these words. The Patriarch views ecumenical dialogue as a sign of communion that unites humankind. This is precisely what Vatican II documents refer to when describing the Church as a sign of the unity of all the human family. Patriarch Kirill, in his address on the occasion of the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas to Russia, underlined that
The path of unity must be undertaken also by the people.
The ecumenism of the people is a central element. If our commitment is confined to the activity of theological Commissions – Kirill said on numerous occasions – we won’t go very far. I believe that the Pope’s commitment for the day of ecumenism and prayer follows this direction, namely, to involve the peoples in the reality of the Middle East, that risks being governed by political powers alone.
From this perspective let us remember the words of Metropolitan Hilarion in Bari, past December, upon the conferral of the honorary degree in Sacred Theology from the Apulian Theological Faculty: “Our joint commitment to protect persecuted Christians has allowed us to attain an unprecedented level of attention to the problem of persecution.”
It’s the ecumenism of blood, mentioned by the Pope on several occasions. It’s the ecumenism of the martyrs. Nothing brings Christians together more than ministering to their brothers and sisters who are victims of persecution. July 7 will also be devoted to “the martyrdom and the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Because the problem of war is tragically reflected in their lives and in their profession of faith.”
In his recent pastoral visit to Alessano and Molfetta, in remembrance of don Tonino Bello, the Pope highlighted “the vocation to peace” of the Apulia region. “But above all, you are a window of hope – he said –because the Mediterranean, a historical basin of civilization, is never a tense arch of war, but an ark of welcoming peace.”
“Apulia region: ark of peace, not a bow of war”, is the title of a statement released by the bishops of the metropolitan see of Bari, signed by don Tonino in 1988, against the proposed transfer of U.S. F-16 jet fighters to the airfield of Gioia del Colle (Bari).
The image of the ark that replaces the longbow is the best way to describe what we are set to experience next July.
A land of peace with the figure of St. Nicholas as its centre. Indeed! The figure of St. Nicholas is not only related to Gospel proclamation. It is also linked to the experience and witness of Christian love. In Russia, Patriarch Kirill reminded us that the figure of Saint Nicholas was decisive in the darkest moments of the Country. Despite a century of imposed, proclaimed and professed atheism, St. Nicholas was critical to preserving the faith. He is a symbol of peace, he symbolizes the encounter between Christian confessions and between peoples.