Vatican returns relics of saints to Istanbul

Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, pray inside St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, on Saturday.
Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, pray inside St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, on Saturday. Plinio Lepri / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pope John Paul II, seeking to heal rifts with other Christians, on Saturday handed over the relics of two Orthodox saints that were brought to Rome from ancient Constantinople centuries ago.

The pope sat beside Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, in St. Peter’s Basilica as the bones of the saints, resting on yellow velvet in crystal and alabaster reliquaries, were brought the altar.

The two religious leaders later blessed the relics, before the reliquaries were carried away by Vatican ushers in dark suits. The Vatican is retaining some small part of the relics.

During a visit to the Vatican in June, the Orthodox leader had sought the return of the relics of Patriarchs John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, who were archbishops long before the split between the eastern and western churches nearly 1,000 years ago.

In remarks read for him by an aide, the frail pontiff called it an occasion to “purify our wounded memories” and to “strengthen our path of reconciliation.”

Bartholomew, speaking next, said the handover repaired “an anomaly” and “ecclesiastical injustice” and that it was a sign that there are no “insurmountable problems in the Church of Christ.”

The Orthodox leader said the gesture also served as an example to those holding religious treasures sought by others.

A religious service attended by Orthodox and Catholic clerics was to be held in Istanbul, Turkey, later Saturday to mark the relics’ return to the city that was formerly the Greek Orthodox Byzantine capital, Constantinople.

Emphasis on reconciliation
Bartholomew and John Paul have both emphasized reconciliation between their churches, which split in 1054 over the growing power of the papacy.

The Orthodox say the relics were removed from Constantinople when Crusaders sacked the city in 1204.

The Vatican, however, says the bones of one of the saints, Gregory, were brought to Rome by Byzantine monks in the 8th century.

In a statement issued Saturday, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls emphasized that Gregory’s remains were brought to Rome in the earlier century and denied that the pope was “asking pardon” for the removal of the saints’ remains.

“Without negating the tragic events of the XIII century,” Navarro-Valls said, the gesture was intended to promote unity between Catholics and Orthodox.

The remains have been kept in St. Peter’s Basilica.

In 2001, John Paul apologized for Roman Catholic involvement in the Constantinople siege.

The pope has made reconciliation among the divided Christian churches one of the major themes of his papacy, but progress has been limited.

In August, he sent to Moscow an icon dear to Russian Orthodox believers.

John Paul has also apologized for sins committed by Catholics against other Christians.

In recent years, however, new strains have arisen.

The Russian Orthodox Church has accused the Vatican of poaching for converts in traditional Orthodox territory, a charge the Vatican firmly denies.

The ordination of women priests in Protestant churches and the recent ordination of a gay bishop in the U.S. Episcopal Church have raised new problems with Rome.

The Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire ultimately collapsed when the Muslim Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453, but the Ecumenical Patriarchate remained in the city.

Bartholomew is considered “first among equals” among Orthodox patriarchs and directly controls several Greek Orthodox churches around the world.