ROME – Pope Francis will visit the southern Italian city if Bari on July 7 for an “an ecumenical encounter for peace,” the Vatican announced, focused on the situation in the Middle East.
Bari contains the relics of St. Nicholas, venerated by Catholics and Orthodox alike, making it a popular pilgrimage destination for many Eastern Christians.
Heads of Christian churches in the Middle East will be invited to participate.
According to a Vatican statement, Francis will go to Bari, a “window on the East that guards the relics of St. Nicholas, for a day of reflection and prayer on the dramatic situation of the Middle East that afflicts so many brothers and sisters in the faith.”
Because of St. Nicholas, Bari is known as a bridge between Western and Eastern Christianity, and a unique point of contact for Western Christians with Eastern tradition. It’s often described as an ecumenical city par excellence.
The Vatican’s statement also said that the pontiff wants to invite the “head of the Christian churches and communities in the region” to the event.
Asked by journalists if these include Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, spokesman Greg Burke didn’t deny it was a possibility. If he were to come, it would be the second time the leaders of Western and Eastern Christianity have met, following a landmark meeting in Cuba as the pope was headed to Mexico in 2016.
Francis had a phone conversation with Kirill the day after a coalition formed by the United States, the United Kingdom and France bombed military targets in Syria on April 14.
“We have come forward with this initiative, knowing that the Christians cannot remain on the sidelines seeing what is happening in Syria,” Kirill told reporters at the time. “Ours was a significant peacemaking dialogue.”
He also said that the two Christian leaders hope to see an end to the “bloodshed” in Syria.
“We spoke about how Christians should influence the events with the scope of putting an end to the violence, ending the war, preventing even more victims,” Kirill said.
Bari is considered a holy city for the Eastern European churches because of the basilica dedicated to Nicholas, known to many as the saint who gives gifts to children on Christmas. Children around the world call him Santa Claus.
Last year, the relics of the Turkish-born saint were lent to Russia, where they were venerated by over 2 million people in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Among them, was President Vladimir Putin.
This is not Francis’s first prayer initiative for peace in the Middle East.
Back in Sept. 7, 2013, he called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria. In 2014, he led an interreligious prayer for peace that included Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, who’d come to the Vatican to pray for peace in the region.
This won’t be the first time a pope visits Bari. Benedict XVI did so soon after his election, on May 29, 2005, to participate in an Eucharistic Congress that was held in the city.
At the same Congress, Cardinal Walter Kasper, Benedict’s countryman who at the time headed the Vatican’s ecumenical office, proposed that a synod between Catholics and Orthodox take place in Bari in 2098, during the 1,000 anniversary of a synod that took place in 1098 in that same city, dealing with a point of disagreement between Catholics and Orthodox.
“Why not hope that here, in Bari, 1,000 years after the synod of 1098, in 2098 – we might again celebrate a synod of Greek and Latin bishops, a synod of reconciliation? And why not before this date?” Kasper said at the time.
His proposal, however, wasn’t new: When he visited the city in 1984, St. John Paul II had a similar thought, which he repeated in his 1996 encyclical Ut Unum Sint: He called on Orthodox and Protestants together with Catholics “to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”
As a footnote, the local airport is named after the Polish saint.