Saint Peter’s Basilica 1987

Gerringong, NSW

There are moments in our lives which leave us with such strong impressions that the picture fades little with the passing of time. One of those moments I experienced in Rome, in December of 1987. I was twenty-six years old and only recently ordained into the holy diaconate of the Eastern Orthodox Church, yet here I was about to witness one of the most important historical events in the relations between the two great churches since the “official” schism of 1054.[1] A few days earlier I had been travelling through Switzerland and was camped out in Zermatt by the foot of the Matterhorn but was able to arrange some fast changes to my travel itinerary, get on a train, and make it to Rome. It would be just in time for the highly controversial concelebration in Saint Peter’s Basilica between Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople. Some days earlier the two religious leaders issued a joint-declaration from the Vatican stressing “the fraternal spirit between the churches.” In a uniquely solemn ceremony the Patriarchs of East and West together recited in Greek the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as originally expressed without the filioque.[2]

Outside in Saint Peter’s Square among the throng of thousands happy enough to witness the momentous event on the giant monitors, another smaller act was about to unfold. Entry into the famous Basilica on that day was by a special ticket, though it was plain enough to see that it was still hugely overcrowded. I was thinking how memorable it would be to witness it all from the inside, to be part of this historic occasion as it actually happened. It was then that I was approached by a nun who appeared to have been the superior of a small group of religious in her company. I could not rightly guess her age on account of her habit, but her face though angular and pale, was a handsome one. She smiled with the expected reserve of someone in her position and with a light tap to my wrist introduced herself, “Good morning Father, I am Sister Benedicta.” During this short exchange she kept her hands clasped neatly in front of her. I noticed an unusual silver rosary with a pearl crucifix intertwined between her fingers. She asked whether I would accept the biglietto of one of her group who at the last moment could not be there. “Thank you very much, yes, of course.” It would still prove quite a challenge to make my way to the entrance secured by the Swiss Guard. I would have liked to talk to this softly-spoken woman, whose accent betrayed a French background, to have asked something of her life, but before I could rightly thank her she disappeared into the growing mass of people. Many years later in Bucharest when I had similarly lost the “old man” in the maddening rush of afternoon traffic, I would once more remember losing her in the crowd.

I pushed and shoved through this vast sea of animated bodies to get through to my destination. At last once there, and after showing my ticket to the officials, I was treated with new found respect and escorted to the near front. My seat was only a few rows behind the impressive congregation of VIPs. Sister Benedicta’s friend, I thought, must have been somebody quite important to have been reserved a spot this close to the historic proceedings. Whose place did I take? There in the company of cardinals and bishops, and of politicians and celebrities, sitting inside an architectural wonder of Renaissance ingenuity (the breath-taking art of the great masters alone was enough to strike you dumb), I felt my chest puff up and my head begin to spin. The pomp and ceremony elevated to an undreamed-of degree intoxicated my senses. Not far, there immediately before us, the Papal Altar where the ancient tomb of Saint Peter lies directly below. One moment I wanted it all and knew that I could make it happen. A few minutes later I was sickened by these thoughts and realized that such high-places would never be for me. The truth? I was possessed with too much ‘bad’ pride and I would need to fight against it for the remainder of my life. At first chance when such opportunities might again present themselves, I would have to uproot. And flee quickly into the darkness in search of the ‘compensation’. “Oh, dear Jesus and Mother of God, what will become of me?”

[1] Meyendorff, J. The Orthodox Church, (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, New York 1981), ch. 3, 39-60.

[2] Siecienski, A.E. The Filioque: History of a Doctrinal Controversy, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010).