Vatican City, 26 May 2014 (VIS) – After signing the Joint Declaration, the Holy Father and the Patriarch Bartholomew went to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre to take part in an ecumenical celebration. The Pope entered the Square by the Muristan arch, while the Patriarch entered by the gate of St. Helena. The celebration continued with the participation of the Ordinaries of the Holy Land, the Syrian archbishop, the Ethiopian archbishop, the Anglican bishop, the Lutheran bishop, and others. It was also attended by the general consuls of the five countries who guarantee the “Statu quo” of the Basilica (France, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Greece), and the other consuls of the “Corpus separatum” of Jerusalem (Switzerland, the United States, Turkey, and the United Kingdom).
The Holy Sepulchre is, according to tradition, the place where the burial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place. After the repression of the Jewish revolt in 135, Jerusalem underwent a radical change: the Jews, Samaritans and Judeo-Christians were expelled and their return was prohibited. Hadrian, with the intention of eliminating every trace of the religion that had provoked two violent revolts, destroyed all places of worship, and the Holy Sepulchre suffered the same fate: it was razed to the ground, its cavities filled with earth, and a temple to the goddess Venus-Ishtar was built over it. During the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea, the bishop of Jerusalem, Macarius, invited the emperor Constantine to restore to light the Holy Sepulchre, which, beneath the rubble, was perfectly preserved. The Basilica of the Resurrection to be built there at the behest of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, and went on to have a tumultuous history throughout the centuries. The stone that sealed the tomb was broken during the Persian invasion of 614 and it went on to suffer further damages until the decision of the Crusaders in 1099 to enclose all the monuments to the death and Resurrection of Christ in a single building, which remained almost unaltered until the end of the nineteenth century. Further damages resulted from the earthquake in 1927 and the first Arab-Israel war in 1948.
The Basilica continues to be regulated according to the “Statu quo”, and it is the property of three communities: the Latins (represented by the Friars Minor), the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox; the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and the Ethiopian Orthodox may officiate in the Basilica. At the entrance, in the atrium, there is the Stone of the Anointing, which according to tradition indicates the place where Jesus, deposed from the Cross, was anointed.
Pope Francis and the Patriarch Bartholomew were received by the three superiors of the communities of the “Statu Quo” (Greek Orthodox, Franciscan and Armenian Apostolic). The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III and the Custodian of Jerusalem, Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, O.F.M. Cap., and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch, His Beatitude Archbishop Nourhan Manougian, venerated the Stone of the Anointing, followed by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch.
After the proclamation of the Gospel and the words of Patriarch Bartholomew, the Holy Father gave an address in which he commented that the Basilica, “which all Christians regard with the deepest veneration”, his pilgrimage in the company of my "beloved brother in Christ, His Holiness Bartholomew, now reaches its culmination. We are making this pilgrimage in the footsteps of our venerable predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, who, with courage and docility to the Holy Spirit, made possible, fifty years ago, in this holy city of Jerusalem, an historic meeting between the Bishop of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople. I cordially greet all of you who are present. In a special way I express my heartfelt gratitude to those who have made this moment possible: His Beatitude Theophilos, who has welcomed us so graciously, His Beatitude Nourhan Manougian and Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa”.
“It is an extraordinary grace to be gathered here in prayer”, he continued. “The empty tomb, that new garden grave where Joseph of Arimathea had reverently placed Jesus’ body, is the place from which the proclamation of the resurrection begins. … This proclamation, confirmed by the testimony of those to whom the risen Lord appeared, is the heart of the Christian message, faithfully passed down from generation to generation. … This is the basis of the faith which unites us, whereby together we profess that Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the Father and our sole Lord, 'suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead'. Each of us, everyone baptised in Christ, has spiritually risen from this tomb, for in baptism all of us truly became members of the body of the One who is the Firstborn of all creation; we were buried together with him, so as to be raised up with him and to walk in newness of life”.
“Let us receive the special grace of this moment. We pause in reverent silence before this empty tomb in order to rediscover the grandeur of our Christian vocation: we are men and women of resurrection, and not of death. From this place we learn how to live our lives, the trials of our Churches and of the whole world, in the light of Easter morning. … Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the basis of our hope! Let us not deprive the world of the joyful message of the resurrection! And let us not be deaf to the powerful summons to unity which rings out from this very place, in the words of the One who, risen from the dead, calls all of us 'my brothers'”.
“Clearly we cannot deny the divisions which continue to exist among us, the disciples of Jesus”, he observed. “This sacred place makes us even more painfully aware of how tragic they are. And yet, fifty years after the embrace of those two venerable Fathers, we realise with gratitude and renewed amazement how it was possible, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, to take truly significant steps towards unity. We know that much distance still needs to be travelled before we attain that fullness of communion which can also be expressed by sharing the same Eucharistic table, something we ardently desire; yet our disagreements must not frighten us and paralyse our progress. We need to believe that, just as the stone before the tomb was cast aside, so too every obstacle to our full communion will also be removed. This will be a grace of resurrection, of which we can have a foretaste even today. Every time we ask forgiveness of one another for our sins against other Christians and every time we find the courage to grant and receive such forgiveness, we experience the resurrection! Every time we put behind us our long-standing prejudices and find the courage to build new fraternal relationships, we confess that Christ is truly risen! Every time we reflect on the future of the Church in the light of her vocation to unity, the dawn of Easter breaks forth! Here I reiterate the hope already expressed by my predecessors for a continued dialogue with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, aimed at finding a means of exercising the specific ministry of the Bishop of Rome which, in fidelity to his mission, can be open to a new situation and can be, in the present context, a service of love and of communion acknowledged by all”.
“Standing as pilgrims in these holy places, we also remember in our prayers the entire Middle East, so frequently and lamentably marked by acts of violence and conflict. Nor do we forget in our prayers the many other men and women who in various parts of our world are suffering from war, poverty and hunger, as well as the many Christians who are persecuted for their faith in the risen Lord. When Christians of different confessions suffer together, side by side, and assist one another with fraternal charity, there is born an ecumenism of suffering, an ecumenism of blood, which proves particularly powerful not only for those situations in which it occurs, but also, by virtue of the communion of the saints, for the whole Church as well. Those who kill, who persecute Christians out of hatred, do not ask if they are Orthodox or Catholics: they are Christians. The blood of Christians is the same”.
Finally, addressing Bartholomew and all those present, he said, “Your Holiness, beloved brother, dear brothers and sisters all, let us put aside the misgivings we have inherited from the past and open our hearts to the working of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, in order to hasten together towards that blessed day when our full communion will be restored. In making this journey, we feel ourselves sustained by the prayer which Jesus himself, in this city, on the eve of his passion, death and resurrection, offered to the Father for his disciples. It is a prayer which we ourselves in humility never tire to make our own: 'that they may all be one… that the world may believe'. And when disunity makes us pessimistic, distrusting, fearful, let us all commend ourselves to the protection of the Holy Mother of God. When there is spiritual turmoil in the Christian soul, it is only by seeking refuge under her mantle that we can find peace. May the Holy Mother of God help us on this journey”.
After this discourse, the Pope and the Patriarch embraced as a sign of peace and prayed the Lord's Prayer together in Italian, while the others present did so in their own languages. They then entered the Sepulchre to venerate the empty tomb, after which they ascended to the Basilica together to bless the people. They then continued to Mount Calvary, accompanied by the Greek and Armenian Patriarchs and the Custodian of the Holy Land, to venerate the place of Jesus' death and crucifixion.