ROME – Normally, we have to wait until Christmas to see Santa Claus flying through the sky, but this year the gift-giving saint will be cruising above the clouds in the summer as he returns from an historic visit to Russia.
On May 21, the left rib closest to the heart of St. Nicholas was taken from the crypt of the Basilica named after him in the southern Italian town of Bari, placed in a gold-leafed ark and sent to St. Petersburg and then Moscow.
It was the first time in nearly 1,000 years that the relic was moved from its resting place.
In Russia, over 2 million pilgrims waited in hours-long lines to catch a glimpse of the Turkish-born saint, who’s highly venerated by Russian Orthodox. President Vladimir Putin himself paid a visit to the five-inch-long relic.
“This event was made possible thanks to a deal made during a meeting between the (Russian Orthodox) Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis,” Putin said, referring to the religious leaders’ historic encounter in Havana, Cuba, early in 2016.
“It’s a big occurrence for the Orthodox faithful,” the president continued. “We are grateful to Pope Francis and the Holy See for making this decision on the patriarch’s request.”
Now, after two months and seven days, the itinerant saint is returning to Italy. A Russian benefactor paid for a private airplane to escort St. Nick to the “Karol Wojtyla Airport,” the given name of St. Pope John Paul II, in Bari on July 28.
The delegation accompanying the relic includes the Archbishop of Bari-Bitonto, Francesco Cacucci, who recognized the Francis-Kirill summit as a “milestone” for ecumenism, meaning the press for greater Christian unity.
“Ecumenism only has a future if it becomes an ecumenism of peoples,” Cocucci told Italian media outlets. “If it’s only tied to the leaders I don’t believe it can have significant results. I think that since the (Second Vatican) Council there has not been an experience of ecumenism of peoples comparable to that achieved thanks to the relics of St. Nicholas.
“This is the direction of the ecumenism of the future,” he said.
According to Cocucci, the dialogue that has begun between the two Churches may serve as an example for a political dialogue also, insisting that “religious relations are fundamental to achieving peace in the world.”
After landing, the relics will be placed on the “St. Nicholas Mobile” and led in a procession with flag-bearers and a marching band toward the basilica. Upon entering the city gates, small fireworks will warn citizens of the saint’s arrival.
Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will preside over the Vespers to be held at 8 p.m. local time in the Basilica. Russian representatives from the metropolitan church of St. Petersburg and the Patriarchate of Moscow will also be present.
The ceremony will conclude at 10 p.m. local time with fireworks over the Bari boardwalk.
“The transportation of the relic of St. Nicholas to Russia exceeded expectations, and it represents a moment that will remain in the history of relations between the Catholic and Orthodox Church,” Cocucci said.
“As Pope Francis said many times, the value of relics for Catholics and Orthodox is enormous and for our two Churches, ecumenism takes place through the communion of saints,” he said.
“Bari is today in the heart of the Patriarchate of Moscow,” he added.
Father Ciro Capotosto, prior of the Basilica of St. Nicholas, agrees that this event represents “a unique moment in history” for ecumenical relations between the Churches.
“A small seed was planted in the terrain of Rome-Moscow relations, which will now have to bear its fruits,” Capotosto told local media.
We might not have to wait too long to see the fruits of this ecumenical endeavor, since the Vatican’s number two, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, will visit Russia in August in order to witness if the fruits of St. Nick fell on fertile ground.