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from issue no. 03 - 2005

Their devotion to the relics of the Saints

That emotion that unites us

Interview with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Archbishop of Montreal. When he was secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the Christian Unity he had the opportunity of accompanying many Orthodox bishops to the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul.Now he tells us of it …

by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal Marc Ouellet

Cardinal Marc Ouellet

When the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartho­lomew I came to Rome on 27 November last year to solemnly receive part of the relics of Saint Gregory Nazianzen and of Saint John Chrysostom, from the Pope he said on Vatican Radio: «I consider this event to be the most important of my patriarchal service of these past thirteen years». A judgment in some ways surprising, revealing the great importance that the veneration of the relics of martyrs and saints has for the Orthodox.
A statement that did not particularly surprise the 60 year-old Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet, a Sulpician, archbishop of Quebec since November 2002, whom 30Days met in mid January during his stay in Rome for the Plenary of the Pontifical Commission of Latin America, of which he is a member.

Your Eminence, it would seem that for the Orthodox the veneration of relics has more importance than for us Catholics …
MARC OUELLET: Actually one can get the impression that among the Orthodox the cult of relics is felt in a much more intense way than in the Catholic Church of today. In this regard some episodes come to mind which I witnessed when secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. It was March 2002. I was accompanying a delegation of the Greek Orthodox Church on a visit to Rome to the Basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It was a group of bishops led by the Metropolitan of Attica Panteleimon that had come to Rome to return the historic visit that John Paul II had made to Athens in May 2001 on the occasion of his jubilee pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul.
What was it that struck you about that visit to the tombs of the Apostles?
OUELLET: We were in the Vatican Grottos and were accompanied by the delegate of the Fabric of Saint Peter’s, Bishop Vittorio Lanzani. Once we got to the altar of confession we found ourselves in front of the urn where the woolen palliums are kept. Monsignor Lanzani explained to the Greek prelates that the tomb of Peter was there behind. At that point the Metropolitan Panteleimon asked where, precisely, the relics of Peter were. Monsignor Lanzani explained that they were to be found next to the slab of green marble to the right of the urn of the palliums. Just then I didn’t understand the reason for Panteleimon’s request. But it was an instant. I still remember with appreciative wonder that the Greek bishops immediately took off their large black headgear and one by one knelt down, placing their bare foreheads on the slab of green marble, behind which was the tomb of Saint Peter. And they prayed.
And what happened at Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls?
OUELLET: When we arrived at the slab of white marble that covered the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles, the Greek bishops asked to be left alone. Afterwards one of them said to me that, in this case, each bishop stretched out on the ground in such a way as to allow his pectoral cross to enter the fissure in the marble slab so that the cross could physically touch the place of the burial of Saint Paul. These events struck and moved me then as they do now. And so, it doesn’t in fact surprise me that the Patriarch Bartholomew considered receiving the memorials of Gregory and John as the most important moment of his mandate as Patriarch of Constantinople.
L’Oservatore Romano of 10-11 January published an article by Monsignor Walter Brandmüller, president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, in which it is said that there is no proof that the relics of Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom were stolen during the Fourth Crusade.
Bartholomew I in prayer before the sepulcher of the Apostle Peter in the Vatican Grottos, on the morning of 29 June 2004

Bartholomew I in prayer before the sepulcher of the Apostle Peter in the Vatican Grottos, on the morning of 29 June 2004

OUELLET: I don’t want to enter the argument. It’s a known fact however that these relics were first in Constantinople and are now in Rome. But in this regard another episode related to the visit of the Greek bishops in 2002 comes to mind.
Which is that?
OUELLET: I remember that at a certain point some relics that were stolen from Constantinople and brought to Rome on the occasion of the notorious Fourth Crusade were shown to the delegation. I shrank with shame. But the Metropolitan Panteleimon took me by the cassock and said to me: we are truly pleased that these relics are kept here, so many relics have been lost, these on the other hand have not, and this is a benefit, thus we also can venerate them now. Those words – in which perhaps a pinch of diplomatic wisdom was not lacking – saved me from embarrassment. And they were of comfort to me.
Your Eminence, a last question on the pro­spects of ecumenism. At times one hears it said that Catholics make too many concessions to the Orthodox, who on their part do not concede anything to the Church of Rome.
OUELLET: I understand the perplexity. But I believe nonetheless that it must be the Church of Rome, that presides in charity, that always makes the first step. She must always be the first to obey humbly the command of Jesus that brothers should be only one.

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