Pope Francis’ visit to Bari this Saturday to pray for peace in the Middle East will have a strong ecumenical focus, the city's archbishop has said.
Taking place July 7, the day of prayer and reflection will include leaders of Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the Middle East, and will have an “authentically ecumenical breath,” Archbishop Francesco Cacucci of Bari-Bitonto told Vatican News.
He said the day’s events will “combine the ecumenical vision of the Christian Churches and [give] particular attention to the Middle East, to invoke peace, but also to be close to our Christian brothers, who live in suffering.”
Pope Francis announced April 25 he would hold the day primarily for “prayer and reflection on the dramatic situation of the Middle East which afflicts so many brothers and sisters in the faith.”
Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, has confirmed he will be in attendance, as will Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who leads the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Which other patriarchs will attend has not yet been confirmed.
During his Angelus address July 1, Pope Francis said he and the other Christian leaders in Bari “will implore with one voice: ‘Peace be upon you,’” as it says in Psalm 122. “I ask everyone to accompany with prayer this pilgrimage of peace and unity,” he said.
Bari is often called the “porta d’Oriente” or the “Eastern Gate” because of its connection to both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox through the relics of St. Nicholas, venerated by members of both Churches.
Historically, many Eastern Churches have been present in the city, Archbishop Cacucci said, but an ecumenical culture was imprinted upon it most strongly after the Second Vatican Council, when the archbishop of the time opened the crypt of the Basilica of St. Nicholas to the Orthodox by creating a small chapel dedicated to them.
“It was the first such act in the world,” he said. “And so, the journey continued through a constant dialogue with the other Christian confessions but, above all, with the Eastern world, that continually comes here to St. Nicholas to venerate the relics of the thaumaturge [wonder-worker].”
He said both the Russian Orthodox and other Eastern Christian Churches are present in Bari, as well as Anglican and evangelical ecclesial communities.
All of these will be present for and participate in the pope’s visit July 7. A bishop for 31 years, Cacucci said he has “always lived in the light of St. Nicholas, who is the saint of unity.”
“The choice of Bari [to host the meeting] was a decision of the pope that I received with gratitude and with anticipation,” he said.
The main program for July 7 will begin at the Basilica of St. Nicholas, where Francis will greet the patriarchs and a local community of Dominican friars.
From there, the pope and patriarchs will go down into the basilica's crypt to venerate a relic of St. Nicholas and to light a lamp, the flame representing unity.
The main prayer service will take place at Bari’s beachfront. Afterward, Francis and the patriarchs will return to the basilica for a private dialogue and lunch. The trip will conclude around 4:00 p.m.