The epoch making meeting between His Holiness Baselios Marthoma Paulose II, the Supreme Head of the Malankara Orthodox Church and His Holiness Pope Francis, the Supreme Head of the Catholic Church on 5th September, 2013 at Vatican is of great significance on various respects. Both are comparatively new incumbents in their respective offices as the heads of the Church. His Holiness Pope accorded a rousing welcome to the Catholicos which surpasses all precedents. The magnitude and the number of population of a Church is not a significant factor with respect to the visits between prelates. For that matter, there is no comparison between Malankara Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Such visits of the Heads of the Churches are a continuation of an ancient Apostolic tradition. There was a custom among the heads of the Churches to meet and greet the new shepherd of a local Church when he is elected to the new post. This custom was prevalent in the One, Catholic and Apostolic Church prior to the divisions in the Church and the consequent breaking of the communion. Though each Church in a particular nation has its own autonomy of administration, such visits in rare occasions demonstrates their oneness of faith in Jesus Christ and mutuality of Christian love. His Holiness Baselios Augen I received His Holiness Pope Paul VI in Bombay in 1964. His Holiness Baselios Marthoma Mathews I visited His Holiness Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1983 and received the Pope in Mar Elia Cathedral, Kottayam in 1986. Following the same principle, His Holiness Baselios Paulose II attended the Enthronement Service of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church in November 2012. Similarly in March 2013, His Holiness took part in the Enthronement of Abune Mathias, the new Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Both these Churches share the one true faith and have communion with the Malankara Orthodox Church.
It is part of this tradition that our Catholicos visited Pope Francis after some months of his enthronement despite the fact that we still do not have communion and unity of faith with the Catholics. The Catholicos and the delegates from the Church consisting of H. G. Thomas Mar Athanasios, H. G. Dr. Mathews Mar Thimotheos, Rev. Fr. Dr. Johns Abraham Konatt, Rev. Fr. Abraham Thomas, M. G. George Muthoot, Dr. George Joseph, Jacob Mathew Kulanjikombil, Rev. Fr. Dr. K. M. George reached Rome on 4th September, 2013. The accommodation for the whole delegation was arraned at St. Marthas Guest House adjacent to St. Peter Basilica in Vatican. As everybody knows the new Pope also resides in that house. The successors of St. Peter and St. Thomas living together in one house!! Pope Francis resides with others in the guest house at St. Marthas, declining to occupy the official Papal Apartment at Vatican Palace. This Pope opens a new chapter in the history of the Catholic Church as he celebrates mass in the chapel in the downstairs and eats with others in the common mess hall. On 4th September afternoon the Catholicos and the delegates were taken to the St. Peter Basilica, Vatican Museum and the famous Sistine Chapel. Bishop Brian Farell, the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Unity at Vatican gave detailed description about the artistic creations at the Sistine Chapel by renowned artists like Michelangelo. The Catholicos spent a long time in the Sistine Chapel where the Conclave for electing the Popes is conducted. Some rooms which are usually not opened for the guests were also opened for the Catholicos, the distinguished guests at Vatican. For example, the room where the Popes used to wear their official robes immediately after the election as Pope, the Register book in which he puts his signature as Pope for the first time and the chemicals used to show black smoke or white smoke during the election process of Popes etc were shown to them. The famous painting, 'Creation of Adam' by Michelangelo is inscribed on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. One side of the wall had the beautiful picture of Christ's second coming. Marvelous paintings are done on the roof and side walls of the chapel without leaving an inch of space. A facelift was given to these pictures which are faded due to the passage of more than five centuries by Japanese cooperation and technology. The Catholicos and the Orthodox delegation were honoured by Cardinal Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for Unity, Vatican with a banquet on the evening of 4th September. On 5th September, by 8 a.m., the Catholicos and the delegation came for breakfast at the mess hall of St. Marthas (This house is named after Martha, the sister of Lazarus of Bethania and the host of Jesus). By the time, the Pope also came there after the Holy Mass at the chapel in the same house. Seeing the Catholicos at the mess hall, Pope came up to his table and greeted. As the official visit to the Pope was scheduled for 11 a.m., the Pope went to another table saying to meet later. Like all others, he also took his food from the pantry table and started eating at his table. There was nobody to serve him at the table. This is his own style. He is a great shepherd who closely mingled with common people and travelled in ordinary buses and cooked his own food even when he was the Bishop and Cardinal in Argentina. By 11 a.m., the Catholicos was received at the official Reception Hall of the Papal Palace. A private meeting between the Pope and the Catholicos had been arranged before the mutual greeting and the speech in public. Though the time scheduled for this private meeting was 10 minutes, it prolonged for about 45 minutes. For the private meeting between the Pope and the Catholicos, this author, Pope's translator and a Monsignor well versed in various languages also were permitted. The rest of the Indian Orthodox delegation and the distinguished members of the Pontifical Council for Unity, Vatican including its President Cardinal Koch waited at the visiting Hall. Though the Pope understands a bit of English he spoke in Spanish, his mother tongue. Therefore, the Catholicos also spoke in his mother tongue. Later, the Catholicos commented on the meeting like this; "Though we both conversed in Malayalam and Spanish, we could understand very well"! The conversation was really heart touching. The Pope asked many things about Malankara Orthodox Church. The Catholicos asked about the Catholic Church and the future of the world. At one point, the Catholicos commented "Your Holiness' simple lifestyle is an inspiring example for us". The Pope replied with a smile, "I am a sinner, I too commit mistakes". The Pope asked whether we get good candidates for the priestly service in India. The Catholicos replied "We get more applicants in our seminaries than required." Hearing this, the Pope with a loud laugh replied "Send them to me, I need them". The Pope indicated the present situation of the Catholic Church which faces a severe dearth of suitable youths who dedicate their lives for priestly service and monastic life. The two holy fathers discussed the role of the Church in the establishment of a world order upholding peace and justice, the atrocities and commotions in Syria and the possibilities of reestablishment of peace. After the long private meeting, the two holy fathers together came to the main reception hall. After occupying their designated seats, both read the prepared speech in front of the representatives from both Churches. In His Holiness' speech, the Catholicos emphasized the common St. Thomas tradition all Kerala Christians share and indicated that this common tradition is a congenial platform for cooperation among all Kerala christians who became fragmented from 16th century. This common tradition carries the solution for resolving the issues existing between the Catholic and Orthodox Church in Kerala. Regarding unity, the Catholicos emphasized 'the true unity in Christ'. In his speech, His Holiness Pope stated that he received the Catholicos as the representative of the Church established by St. Thomas. He pleaded the intercession of St. Peter and St. Thomas at the end of the speech. The speech of the Catholicos had been printed by the Vatican itself and distributed to all. The L'Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of Vatican, published the Italian translation of the full speech of both the fathers along with two large photographs of the meeting between the holy fathers on the same night. After the speeches, the members of the Indian delegation were introduced to the Pope one by one. This was followed by the exchange of gifts. The Catholicos presented a Service Book of Holy Eucharist written in the Malayalam, Syriac and English language, all in one. The beautiful scripts in it written by Rev. Fr. Aswin Fernandis, the renowned Iconographer and the young priest from the Brahmavar community caught the special attention of Pope. The Pope accepted all gifts with great joy.
As the gifts were handed over, this author commented that "We give these gifts to Your Holiness to remember us in your prayers". The Pope humbly replied, "You may pray for me as well". The Pope very happily accepted the exotic scents and fig fruit brought by Mr. Jacob Mathew from Dubai to be given for the St. Martha house which gave loving hospitality to the delegations. The technical and practical aspects of this historic visit had been looked after by Rev. Fr. Abraham Thomas, the Secretary of the Ecumenical Relations Committee and Rev. Fr. Aswin Fernandis, the Executive Secretary. It was time for lunch and the Catholicos ate with the Pope along with Cardinal Koch, Bishop Farell and the two bishops from the Indian delegation and the author. During the lunch which lasted for one and half hours, the Pope inquired about India and the customs there. Meat items were not served to the Catholicos as it was known that he was from the Eastern monastic tradition. It is customary at the official banquets to keep two goblets for drinking water and wine. Wine was served to both the Pope and the Catholicos. But as the Catholicos did not use it sticking on to his monastic vows, the Pope and the whole company of people on the table did not taste wine! It is crystal clear that the likes and dislikes of the guest are the deciding factor in hospitality. During the casual talks in dinner, when a reference on St. Francis of Assissi about his love for nature on a comment by us regarding the practice of feeding rats, monkeys and snakes in India, the Pope with the curiosity and innocence of a child asked "Do you feed poisonous snakes too?" The Pope was amused at our reply that the snakes will not attack unless they are assaulted. The official visit came to a close when the two fathers bid farewell after the lunch. Both departed after greeting each other. In the afternoon, Rev. Dn. Joji George, Rev. Fr. Vinu Varghese, the research students in Rome and some Malayalee families in Rome came to visit the Catholicos. The Catholicos had to leave at 5:30 a.m. for London on the following day. Vatican had done everything meticulously as per protocol. When the Catholicos was about to board the car at 5:30 a.m., behold, Pope Francis was in front of us, with his radiating smile! All were astonished. The strong walls protocol the Vatican had edified for centuries crumbled for a moment in front of us. The Swiss guards and other security officers were wonder struck for a moment. The Pope embraced the Catholicos and bid good bye. A farewell in the high spirits of brotherhood to a beloved guest who blessed his house! The tenets of all protocol were flung in the air.
Fr. Dr. K. M. George, Director, Sopana Orthodox Academy, Njaliakuzhy, Kottayam