The deep voices of the Orient accompanied the prayers and devotion of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and of the Archbishop of Bari Francesco Cacucci at the altar that preserves the relics of Saint Nicholas. Chants and litanies reverberated in the crypt of the Basilica devoted to the Saint to the presence of Orthodox Metropolitan bishops kneeling down, extending under the altar to touch the relics of the Saint; whilst Catholic bishops and priests silently followed the ceremony in contemplation. It was the culminating moment of the pilgrimage that brought the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I from the Fanar in Istanbul to the lands of the Puglia.
The days were celebrated under the banner of the ecumenism of the people, men and women sharing their devotion to Saint Nicholas together, Christians of Eastern and Western Churches. The faithful filled the Basilica to the brim. They attended Mass even standing outside, in the churchyard. Flows of faithful crowded the adjacent streets paved with white stones. The fragrant odour of freshly baked sweets mingled with the sounds of the drums and the energetic spin of flags celebrating the Feast of the Patron Saint.
“This evening – said archbishop Cacucci in his homily addressing Patriarch Barthomew – the celebration is made more precious by Your presence. Saint Nicholas is the Saint of all Christians. He is the Ecumenical Saint par excellence. This evening we are living a dream, mindful of the fact that the path of our ecumenical journey is still demanding.”
The Patriarch, accompanied by his entourage, was perfectly as ease standing amidst the crowd of faithful. He stopped to greet them, he lingered to caress the children. He is a father of this land. “The Divine Providence –Archbishop Carucci said in his address to the Patriarch – donates us pastors. And in this time he has bestowed upon us the gift of Your Holiness and of Pope Francis.” “May the Lord help us walk ever more closely along the same path. I firmly believe that the Lord wants all to be one.”
Welcoming these words, in his address to the city’s population the Patriarch mentioned the “beautiful land” washed by the Adriatic Sea and by the Ionian Sea, engrained with an “ecumenical vocation.” He thus entrusted his prayers at the tomb of Saint Nicholas, “that one day soon may we break together the Bread of Life and drink from the Chalice of Salvation.”
On many occasions in the past few days, the Patriarch spoke of the Mediterranean Sea “traversed by flows of refugees and migrants”, which for too many has become a place of death. As Christians we cannot remain indifferent to the cries of pain” “That’s why with our beloved brother in Rome, Pope Francis, we jointly cried out our appeals, from the Island of Lesbos, to all the powerful in the world, those who hold the destiny of humanity in their hands, and we shall continue in the name of God, our Almighty Father, our Most Merciful Father.”
In the first row of the Basilica are seated a small group of refugees: four children and two women from Eritrea. They are guests of the Cara Reception Centre in Bari, the structure hosts 1700 people from 40 different nationalities. The Puglia, as the rest of Italy, is also a land of transit for many people who cross deserted lands and expanse of sea in search of a better future.
The city of Bari has been the main destination of Orthodox pilgrims for almost 1000 years. A constant flow of believers from cities and villages throughout Eastern Europe arrive in Bari in the hope of touching the tomb where rest the relics of Saint Nicholas. The various Georgian, Romanian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Orthodox communities celebrate their liturgies in churches of the old city. On March 1st 2009, the Russian Church in Bari dedicated to Saint Nicholas Thaumaturge was returned to Moscow’s Patriarchate’s ownership.
“The ecumenism of the people that is lived here in Bari – said bishop Cacucci – was born and developed in the name of Saint Nicholas, because Saint Nicholas is the Ecumenical Saint par excellence.” That’s why the decision of the Italian Bishops’ Conference to officially establish December 6 as the Day marking the celebration of the Memory of Saint Nicholas (previously optional) holds special significance.
In highlighting the topical relevance of the decision, Monsignor Cacucci recalled an episode on the Saint of Myra in the words of Andrew of Crete: “Saint Nicholas turned to a bishop with whom he had quarrelled and said: dear brother, let us come together and may our anger dissipate before the sun sets. I believe that these words, which are attributed to St. Nicholas – he concluded – encompass the desire of the Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Church to overcome all the difficulties that still prevent us to live the fullness of unity in the celebration of the Eucharist.”