Popes and Ecumenical Patriarchs: When the Stones Speak

When Pope Francis announced his Holy Land pilgrimage from the 24th to the 26th of this coming May, he placed the fiftieth anniversary of the meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras at its heart.

At the time, that meeting created excitement among Christians all over the world. Nine centuries after the schism between Rome and Constantinople, the patriarchs of East and West embraced.

Who knows that that the event is literally carved in stone and waiting for Pope Francis in the very place where the meeting will be commemorated?

The Holy Sepulchre has always been a center of attention for the Christian world archaeologically, but primarily religiously and historically. Within it, you can meet a solid, silent but eloquent presence. In the serenity of the Franciscan monastery this presence that as it watches over the pilgrims, you might believe that it’s so much alive that it could retell the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras on the 5th of January 1964. “It” is a stone, or more exactly, a “capital of ecumenism” that depicts a modern-day chronicle.

Its creator, the artist Mario Robaudi (1) accepted the invitation of Paul VI, who wanted to restore the site by re-establishing the spiritual unity of a Christianity that has been torn apart for a millennium. The capital brings together three facets of the meeting: the past, the present and the future.

The past because the capital is testimony to an event that was a living manifestation of the universality present in every being, testimony to a hope and an ideal: the embrace of a reunited humanity.

The present because, hidden in the private part of the Franciscan monastery (inaccessible to pilgrims), the capital is a faithful witness to this historic and decisive meeting. The capital is located in the transept opposite the entrance door; specifically, it is atop one of the columns that supports the vaults of the north gallery in the rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre.

The sculptor chose an “abstract realism” style that exalts the meeting. The style is in stark contrast to the fashion of its time, although it respects the dimensions of the other capitals around it.

The future because the capital bears the image of the future embrace between the successors of the two Christian confessions, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I, which will take place at this very site in May during the next apostolic trip.

The artist created a bridge between these two meetings that are so important to the Church’s ecumenism. This unique avant-garde work, immersed in a world both Byzantine and Roman, connects what is new to the old and prophecy to the past. It is as if Pope Paul VI, through this capital, asked Pope Francis to protect his call for more ecumenism. A providential work of art or pure coincidence?

(1) Mario Robaudi was born in Imola (Italy) in 1933. He completed his artistic education at the Florence Institute of the Arts and Louis Leyggue’s sculpture studio at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Paris (France).

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