VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis and the Coptic Orthodox pope, Tawadros II, delivered a joint blessing Wednesday from St. Peter’s Square in a significant ecumenical gesture to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic meeting of their predecessors.
Tawadros, the Coptic Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, joined Francis on the stage for the entirety of Francis’ weekly general audience. He delivered a lengthy speech at the start in Arabic and then joined Francis in blessing the crowd at the end during a rainy morning.
In welcoming Tawadros to the Vatican, Francis recalled that Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of the meeting of St. Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III, a first between a Catholic and Coptic Orthodox pope. During that May 10, 1973, encounter, the two popes signed a joint statement on their shared faith in Christ and their rejection of proselytism, while also voicing concern for the plight of the Palestinian people and calling for peace in the Middle East.
Francis has called that declaration a “milestone on the ecumenical journey,” and welcomed Tawadros to the Vatican soon after his election in 2013. Francis then visited Tawadros in 2017 at the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo at a time in which Egypt’s Orthodox Christians were reeling from a spate of Islamic militant suicide bombings at churches that killed dozens of people.
Francis has frequently referred to the “ecumenism of blood,” the idea that Catholics and Orthodox — while divided by schism and theological differences — are united in mourning religiously inspired violence against Christians. Francis referred Wednesday in particular to the 2015 beheading of 21 mostly Egyptian Coptic Christian workers in Libya.
“And speaking of martyrs of the Coptic Church, who are ours as well, I want to remember the martyrs on the Libyan beach, who were made martyrs a few years ago,” Francis said.
Tawadros, for his part, reaffirmed the ties that unite the churches. “Despite the differences in our roots and affiliations, we are united by the love of Christ who dwells in us and the host of our apostle fathers and saints surrounds and guides us,” he said, according to a translation of his Arabic remarks provided by the Vatican.
Tawadros’ visit will culminate with another ecumenically important event when he celebrates a Coptic Orthodox liturgy Sunday at Francis’ cathedral in Rome, the Basilica of St. John Lateran.
According to the Vatican’s ecumenical norms, Catholic churches are “generally reserved” for Catholic worship. But a bishop can offer one of his churches to another Christian community “if it will not cause scandal or confusion to the faithful.”
Last month, there was an uproar among some conservative Catholics when a group of 50 Anglican bishops and priests celebrated a liturgy at St. John Lateran’s main altar without such proper approvals. The basilica issued an apology and said the celebration violated canonical norms.
In the case of Tawadros, the Vatican has made clear that he has full approval to celebrate the divine liturgy on Sunday at Francis’ cathedral, which is his seat as bishop of Rome. A statement from the Vatican secretariat of state announcing Tawadros’ visit and the celebration noted that the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt “is one of the most important realities in the ecclesial panorama of the Middle East where in these times the Christian community is facing situations of great difficulty.”