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A group of Catholic pilgrims walks past shops selling tourist souvenirs on Via Dolorosa, or the Way of the Cross, believed by Christians to be the route Jesus Christ carried his cross to his crucifixion, in Jerusalem's Old City May 20, 2014. (FINBARR O'REILLY/REUTERS)
A group of Catholic pilgrims walks past shops selling tourist souvenirs on Via Dolorosa, or the Way of the Cross, believed by Christians to be the route Jesus Christ carried his cross to his crucifixion, in Jerusalem's Old City May 20, 2014. (FINBARR O'REILLY/REUTERS)

Pope and Patriarch prepare for historic encounter in Jerusalem Add to ...

They were just three little words – “and the son” – but when Pope Leo IX added them (in Latin – filioque) to the Nicene Creed in 1054, he triggered a schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches that would last more than 900 years.

This weekend, the Bishop of Rome – Pope Francis, spiritual leader of a billion Catholics – and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople – Bartholomew, first in honour among all Eastern Orthodox bishops and representing 300 million Orthodox Christians – will meet in Jerusalem to bury this great schism. The two religious leaders are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the meeting of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, who took the first step toward reconciliation when they shook hands in Jerusalem and ended the mutual excommunications issued by the Pope and Patriarch back in 1054.

It wasn’t just that the Orthodox Church objected to the spin those three words put on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) in the all-important statement of Christian beliefs. The Eastern hierarchy also was disturbed by the fact that the Pope in Rome – asserting papal supremacy – had made this addition without properly consulting the church in Constantinople.

Except for one failed attempt at reconciliation in the 15th century, the two churches remained in a state of animosity – and sometimes of conflict – for 910 years. That ended in 1964. But, since then, progress has been slow in reconciling their differences and bringing the two sides closer together.

It was only last year that Bartholomew attended the inauguration of Francis as pope, the first time the head of the Orthodox Church had participated in a papal ceremony in almost 1,000 years. Bartholomew took the occasion to invite Francis to join him in Jerusalem to put meat on the ecumenical skeleton their predecessors had established 50 years ago. The often spontaneous Pope accepted and this weekend’s visit to the Holy Land is the somewhat surprising result.

Bartholomew said in a recent interview that the road to unity remains long, but that Pope Francis’s acceptance of the invitation to meet in Jerusalem demonstrates that both leaders want to end the near 1,000-year divide.

This Pope’s visit to the Holy Land “is unlike any of the three that have gone before,” says Michael Higgins, a Vatican expert at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. Time spent with Israelis is very limited on this trip and there will be no pastoral visit to the large Christian Israeli community in the Galilee that was the hallmark of previous papal pilgrimages.

Even if it means giving short shrift to Israel, said Mr. Higgins, “Francis has other priorities he is determined to establish.”

Rare unity at the Holy Sepulchre

Reconciliation with the Orthodox churches is the Pope’s top priority. As Francis said in December: “In some countries they kill Christians because they wear a cross or have a Bible, and before killing them they don’t ask if they’re Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholic or Orthodox.”

“We’re united in blood, even if among ourselves we still haven’t succeeded in taking the necessary steps towards unity.”

Nowhere is Christian disunity more in evidence than in the faith’s most important site, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the place of Jesus’s burial and resurrection. Feuding among Christian denominations for place and position inside the church is so intense that no one branch of Christianity could be entrusted with the key to the building, lest it lock the others out. For that reason, the great iron key has been entrusted for centuries to one Muslim family, the Nusseibehs.

Hoping to rectify the need for unity, Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are scheduled to meet four times during the Pope’s overnight stop in Jerusalem.

Watch for the most significant meeting at an ecumenical service Sunday evening, when they, along with a representative of the Armenian Church, will pray together at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The event will be “extraordinarily historic,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, since the three communities normally observe strict separation when they worship in the church.

Recognizing the state of Palestine

The second priority is to show “solidarity with the people who suffer,” said Father Jamal Khader, the spokesman for the papal visit, referring to Palestinians.

To that end, watch for Pope Francis to break new ground in Bethlehem.

According to the itinerary, his first act upon landing in Bethlehem by helicopter from Jordan will be to pay “a courtesy visit to the president of the State of Palestine,” Mahmoud Abbas, at the presidential palace. Note the use of the term “State of Palestine,” a term that Israel, the United States and Canada would never use, and would likely object to.

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