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Catholic-Orthodox pilgrimage arrives in Rome

Boston Metropolitan Methodios presents Pope Benedict XVI with a cross at the Sept. 19 general audience as Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley looks on. Both Boston religious leaders are leading a joint pilgrimage to Rome, Constantinople and St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy L’Osservatore Romano

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ROME -- Nearly 1,000 years ago the Catholic and Orthodox churches separated. This week Boston’s Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Methodios took a small step toward healing that rift.

The two hierarchs led nearly 100 Catholic and Orthodox faithful on a 10-day ecumenical pilgrimage.

On Sept. 19 the pilgrims completed the first leg of their journey spending two packed days visiting several sacred sites in the city of Rome. On Sept. 20 the group was to move on to Istanbul -- the former Constantinople -- for two days and then on Sept. 23 spend three days in the historic city of St. Petersburg, Russia.

The large group departed from Boston Sept. 16 on three flights. After a day of travel, the pilgrims arrived at the Grand Hotel Palazzo Carpegna and spent the evening settling in.

The next morning the pilgrims awoke early for a day centered on tours of the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica.

The highlight of the tours for many was the seldom-seen archeological excavations of the necropolis, or city of the dead, over which the basilica was constructed. The excavation contains the remains of the original basilica constructed by the Emperor Constantine, the tomb of St. Peter as well as several bones believed to be his. Because of the delicate nature of the excavations, only several dozen visitors a day are allowed into the site.

Following the visit to St. Peter’s the group made a dash in a torrential cloud burst through the interior of Vatican City to the Vatican Museums. The pilgrims had several free hours to explore the museum at their leisure and view the many great works on display including Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel.

During the afternoon, while pilgrims participated in tours, Cardinal O’Malley, Metropolitan Methodios as well as the Catholic and Orthodox clergy and ecumenical officers on the journey took part in a meeting at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

According to Vito Nicastro of the archdiocese’s Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, the Boston delegation was greeted warmly by council Secretary Bishop Brian Farrell. Bishop Farrell opened the encounter describing the origins of the pontifical council in the Second Vatican Council and how it has developed over the intervening years to fulfill its mission.

It was symbolic, Nicastro said, that hanging on the wall of the meeting room was the original icon given to Pope Paul VI by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I at their 1964 meeting in Jerusalem during which they lifted the mutual anathema between the churches. The icon depicts the brothers St. Peter and St. Andrew, the founders of the churches of Rome and Constantinople, embracing.

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