The translation of the relics of St. John Chrysostom (349-407) and St. Gregory Nazianzen (330-390) to Constantinople constitutes an occasion “to purify the memory of the past and to advance toward full communion”. This is what John-Paul II affirmed on the occasion of an ecumenical ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica on November 27, when he returned the relics to Patriarch Bartholomew I, who had come to Rome for the event.
“The translation of these holy relics” is “a blessed occasion to purify our wounded memory and to strengthen our progress toward reconciliation”, declared the pope. It is the propitious time to show, with these words and acts today, the immense riches that our churches preserve in the treasuries of their traditions”, he continued, citing his own apostolic letter published in May 1995, Orientale lumen (Light from the East).
For the sovereign pontiff, this act is meant to be a prayer of intercession “so the Lord will hasten the hour when we can, together, in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, fully live communion”. While certain press agencies saw in this gesture an act of reparation and a request for pardon for the Crusades and the sack of Constantinople, the Holy See firmly set aside this idea, speaking of a “return” and not “restitution” of the relics to Constantinople.
But the Patriarch of Constantinople warmly thanked John-Paul II for his “decision of good will” to “restore” the relics which “have thus seen the end of this involuntary and centuries-old exile, imposed by disturbing circumstances for the Church”. Bartholomew I underscored how the translation of the relics of these two bishops of Constantinople from the first millennium “is a motive of joy not only for the Orthodox Church, which deeply venerates them, but also for all our brother Catholics” who live in Turkey. “We celebrate today a sacred act which repairs an anomaly and an ecclesial injustice”, affirmed the ecumenical patriarch, who thinks that this gesture of Rome “confirms that there are, in Christ’s Church, no insurmountable problems”.
“We are convinced, Holiness, that you strongly desire the improvement of relations between our churches”, he continued, recognizing the “exhausting pilgrimages” of the pope, which have an ecumenical impact and emphasis. They have as their goal the “healing of old wounds and the prevention of new ones”. For the patriarch, “all this contributes to the creation of the foundations needed to pursue dialog”.
Bartholomew I concluded his allocution, hoping that the gesture of the pope will be “imitated” by all those who, “arbitrarily, possess and continue to retain treasures of the faith, of popular piety and of the civilization of others, so that they may be restored to those who, justly, seek and demand them”.
The pope, seated on a mobile throne, had come to welcome the patriarch in the atrium of the Basilica where they exchanged the kiss of peace. They then went, side by side, up the central aisle of the Vatican Basilica to preside over the ecumenical ceremony. Then, the relics were carried in procession to the back of the basilica toward the main altar, while the choir sang the Litany of the Saints in Latin. Greek choirs accompanied the incensing of the relics, which remained before the altar during the whole ceremony.
Introducing this ecumenical liturgy, John-Paul II insisted on “this significant moment of prayer, exchange of gifts and fraternal communion”, before the reading of various poetry and prayers composed by the two saints, and an exchange of letters between St. John Chrysostom and Pope Innocent I. The universal prayer, alternately read by an Orthodox and a Roman deacon, made mention of “the communion” and of the “full unity” willed by God, although the Orthodox Church has been separated from Rome since the Great Schism of 1054.
At the end of the celebration, which lasted more than an hour, John-Paul II received the Patriarch privately, before the departure for Istanbul that afternoon of the Orthodox delegation, which was accompanied by a delegation of the Holy See. The latter went to Turkey to take part in the solemnity of St. Andrew, the patron of Constantinople, on November 30.
In an interview on Radio Vatican, a few hours after the ecumenical celebration, the Patriarch of Constantinople said he was “very moved and very happy” with this “historic event which was realized thanks to the good will of the pope”. “I consider this event to be the most important of my patriarchal service of the last thirteen years”, he affirmed. “This is a very important step toward full unity between our two sister Churches, which has been much appreciated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and by all of Orthodoxy”, he continued.
The Patriarch said he expected other advances in the ecumenical dialog, even if “we can’t foresee what they will be”. “They will certainly be positive ones” and should “promote good fraternal relations between us”, and then he concluded, “Each of these advances will be a stone in the construction of the edifice of full unity”.
For his part, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican prelate in charge of relations with the Orthodox, affirmed that this translation of the relics is a sign that relations have improved much between Rome and Constantinople. “In the second place, he added, they are the sign of a common heritage of faith going back to the first centuries of Christianity”, since these saints are venerated in the West as well as the East. The President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity insisted that these remains are not “dead bones”, either for the Orthodox or “for us”, but are part of the heavenly reality and allow us to participate in it. “This is, truly, a very profound act of reconciliation between the West and the East”, he concluded.