“Really, it was moving. It was very moving and emotional,” Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem told CNA May 25, explaining that he had never witnessed anything like it before.
“The humility of the Pope, the friendship which was born between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the atmosphere, the nature of people present of the Holy Sepulcher. It was historical in all ways.”
Bishop Shomali, who was present during the communal prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher May 25 during the Pope's trip to the Holy Land earlier this week, said that the importance of that moment in terms of unity amongst the varying rites was never doubted.
“The fruits are unpredictable – we don't know what it will result in,” he said. “But at least something will come out of it,” the bishop added, noting that one concrete hope is “that the unification of the Calendar of the Easter should be an immediate result of this.”
Sunday's meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch marks the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Paul VI and the then Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem on Jan. 6, 1964.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew wished to commemorate the historical encounter again in Jerusalem, thus pushing to foster the ecumenical path toward the unity of Christians.
Housing both the tomb of Christ and the site of his crucifixion, the Holy Sepulcher has been a source of conflict among varying Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Armenians, as to who claimed property rights over the holy sites.
These rights as are currently under negotiation between the Vatican and the State of Israel.
Implemented during the 17th and 18th centuries in order to relieve tensions surrounding ownership, a “status quo” currently dictates the times and durations of events and liturgies among the varying rites, as well as how they are practiced, whether sung or read.
Also under negotiation are is a more lenient policy allowing Christians to worship in the Cenacle, which they traditionally believe to be the site where Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection and where the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost.
Observing the importance of how Pope Francis was able to celebrate Mass there during his three day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Bishop Shomali explained that “In some occasions yes,” the Christians can hold Mass, but it is not common and “you have to ask for permission.”
“Normally, only visits are allowed to this place because it is a place which is contested and claimed by Israelis and Muslims” he noted.
“Muslims consider it to be a mosque,” while “Israelis say ‘this is the Tomb of David area compound' and that “it was ours after 1948.’ So really the Vatican doesn’t want sovereignty over it,” the bishop explained. “They only want sometimes during the day to have the possibility of holding prayers.”
“But this Mass today is exceptional,” he said, referencing Pope Francis' Eucharistic celebration there on May 26. “It’s not part of the normal sequence of events for the daily basis use of the Cenacle.”
Voicing his hopes for the outcome of the negotiations, which Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Dr. Zion Evrony stated could conclude this summer, Bishop Shomali said that “we hope that the Vatican will be able to have more usage.”
“More hours of prayer, in the early morning before the pilgrims start to come so no one will be ‘hurt’ by these two hours.”
Alan Holdren contributed to this piece.
The auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem described the recent prayer shared between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I as a moving event, predicting future blessings from the encounter.
Pope Francis in Holy Land