First Greek Orthodox Leader in Thousand Years to Attend Pope's Inaugural Mass

Monday, 18 Mar 2013 06:17 PM

By Edward Pentin

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Edward Pentin reporting from Rome — When Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural Mass tomorrow, seated on his right will be cardinals, bishops and — for the first time in over 1,000 years at a Mass of this kind — the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

On his left will be heads of state and ministers including President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Vice President Joe Biden and congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

Delegations from 132 countries have confirmed their presence at the ceremony which officially marks the beginning of Pope Francis’s pontificate. These include six reigning sovereigns, 31 heads of state, three crown princes, 11 heads of government and many other dignitaries.

But the Vatican, keen to avoid accusations that it had invited the likes of Jesuit-educated Mugabe to the Mass, has stressed that no one received invitations. “The delegations are coming to Rome following information of the event made public by the [Vatican] Secretary of State,” said Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi. “There were no 'invitations' sent out. All who wish to come are warmly welcomed.”

The liturgy in St. Peter’s Square is expected to be relatively simple and “not too long,” the Vatican said, and interestingly, Pope Francis will not be distributing holy communion. It’s not immediately clear why, but the Vatican seemed to infer it was to keep the Mass shorter and simpler.

Observers, however, believe it is so the Pope is not put in the awkward position of giving communion to Catholics such as Biden and Pelosi whose public positions on abortion are at odds with Catholic teaching. As cardinal, Pope Francis was categorical in disallowing holy communion to any who facilitated an abortion, politicians included.

Also seated close to the Pope will be Jewish and Muslim representatives and members of other religions, together with around 1,200 priests and seminarians as well as diplomats accredited to the Holy See and civil authorities.

The rest of the piazza is expected to be packed with pilgrims and tourists. The Vatican has said everyone is welcome, and no tickets are required. Rome authorities are preparing for up to a million people to attend the Mass, although the final number is expected to be lower.

Among those present tomorrow, perhaps the most remarkable is that of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. It is the first time in over a thousand years that the Greek Orthodox leader has attended a papal inauguration and points to great improvements in Catholic-Orthodox relations in recent years.

Bartholomew — the spiritual leader of 250 million Orthodox faithful worldwide — has said he is attending the Mass to underscore the importance he attaches to "friendly ties" between the churches in a “new era.”

He also said his participation reflects expectations that Pope Francis will advance rapprochement efforts that began decades ago. "I am very hopeful in this matter," he said in an interview shortly before leaving for Rome.

Jesuit Father James McCann, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome said “it’s a wonderful, concrete sign of what we can develop in building Christian unity.”

Traditionally, delegations from both churches visit each other annually. Bartholomew also attended Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005. But this is an unprecedented event in modern times, and Bartholomew noted that even before the schism, a patriarch from Istanbul did not attend a papal inauguration.

“This relationship has been building over the years and certainly Benedict XVI’s pontificate was key,” said McCann, who recalled the patriarch’s visit to the Pontifical Oriental Institute — where Bartholomew studied for a doctorate — in 2008. The Orthodox had great respect for Benedict XVI, and particularly valued his approach to the liturgy.

The patriarch’s attendance is also helpful to the Orthodox Church in Istanbul. “It’s important for him to be visible as well,” said a Vatican official on condition of anonymity, “because Christians in Istanbul are very few — maybe 10,000 — and they are being pressured to leave Istanbul.” Attacks on Christians have risen recently as Turkey gradually moves away from a secular state and towards a more hard line Islamic one.

Pope Francis will enter St. Peter’s Square in the Popemobile shortly before 9am and travel around the square so the crowd will be able to see him up close.

Then, during the Mass, six representative cardinals will approach the Pope to make an act of obedience. This emphasis on obedience is new — one of the last acts of Benedict XVI and emblematic of his wish to foster unity around the successor of Peter. The cardinals who elected Pope Francis have already pledged to obey the Pope, at the end of the Conclave in the Sistine Chapel. And at the moment when the Pope “takes possession” of the Cathedral of Rome — the basilica of St. John Lateran — another act of obedience will be made, this time by representatives of the various members of the laity.

The Pope will give his homily in Italian and, as is becoming clear, he will probably include some spontaneous remarks.

Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.

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