On Wednesday the Vatican announced that Pope Francis will travel to the Italian town of Bari July 7 for an ecumenical gathering with the heads of other Christian churches to pray for peace in the Middle East.
According to the April 25 Vatican communique announcing the visit, the event will primarily be “a day of prayer and reflection on the dramatic situation of the Middle East which afflicts so many brothers and sisters in the faith.”
The pope has invited faithful to prepare for the event with prayer and will invite heads of the Christian churches and communities in the region, which is home to several different Catholic and Orthodox rites.
Located in Italy's southern Puglia region, Bari is home to the relics of St. Nicholas. Widely known by his more commercialized title of “Santa Claus,” St. Nicholas is one of the most important saints in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Pope Francis lent relics of the saint, which consisted of several bone fragments, to Russia last summer in a bid to build further bridges with the Russian Orthodox Church.
The relics were sent from Bari to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow from May 22-July 12, 2017, marking the first time in 930 years that a part of St. Nicholas' body left Bari for veneration abroad. While in Russia, the relics were venerated by more than two million Orthodox faithful, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Francis sent the relics after Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill made a specific request during the historic meeting with Pope Francis in Havana, Cuba in February 2016.
Since the Bari encounter in July is designed to be an ecumenical gathering, it is likely that Patriarch Kirill will attend alongside other leaders. It is also likely that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will also attend, given the frequency of when he and Francis meet.
St. Nicholas was one of the most venerated saints in Christianity even before his relics were taken from Myra, Turkey, by 62 sailors from Bari in 1087. At the time, the sailors made an expedition to Myra to save St. Nicholas’ relics from Muslims who had conquered the city where the saint had lived and served as a bishop in the fourth century.
At the same time that the pope lent the relics of St. Nicholas to Russia, he also lent the relics of St. Philip to Patriarch Bartholomew in Turkey.
St. Philip's relics arrived in the Turkish city of Izmir, also known as Smyrna in ancient Greek, May 8, 2017, where they remained for the summer.
During his life, St. Philip evangelized the area and was also martyred there. His relics had been secured in Rome’s Santi Apostoli Church since the sixth century, however, in 2016, they were taken out and underwent an examination. They were then exposed for public veneration.
rnThe common veneration of saints and relics is one area where ecumenism is performed today. Pope Francis himself has often spoken of prayer as a way to build bridges and bring members of different rites and confessions together.