When I worked for what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, I often had to travel from Geneva, Switzerland, to Rome for meetings at the main office of the Secretariat. In the main meeting room, I could not help but notice the icon above, which hung on the wall. It always fascinated me. It shows the brothers, Sts. Peter and Andrew, embracing. There is a Greek inscription which reads: “The Holy Apostle Brothers.” Next to Peter are the words: Peter, the koryphaios (“leader, head”) and next to Andrew are the words: Andrew, the prtokltos (“first called”). Andrew is the “first called” because he was the first of the Apostles called by Jesus (John 1:40).
I later learned that the icon was a gift of Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to Pope Paul VI as a remembrance of their meeting in the Holy Land in January 1964 — the first between a pope and a patriarch of Constantinople in well over a thousand years.
But the icon is more than merely a remembrance of the meeting. It has powerful symbolic importance — and it is especially significant today, the Feast of St. Andrew.
Peter is, of course, the patron saint of Rome. He and Paul were martyred in Rome and the bishop of Rome is the successor of St. Peter.
Andrew, however, is revered as the patron saint of Byzantium — and the patriarch of Constantinople is his successor. In a real sense, the icon represents not only Peter and Andrew embracing, nor even just Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras; it represents the hoped-for unity between the Eastern and Western Churches.
Although in the icon the apostles are embracing, the relationship between their successors has not always been so warm. In 1054 the bishop of Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other and began the Great Schism which has divided the Eastern and Western churches for almost a thousand years.
The meeting of Paul VI and Athenagoros began a change in the relations between the churches. In 1965 each of the leaders revoked the anathemas (excommunications) of 1054. Peter and Andrew were beginning the road to reconciliation. Since that time there have been great advances toward unity between the two churches, although admittedly there are still problems to be solved.
One of the most beautiful outcomes of the initial encounter of pope and patriarch was an annual exchange of visits. On 29 June, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, patrons of Rome, the Phanar, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, sends a high level delegation to celebrate the feast with the Pope in Rome. I was privileged to be at the celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1995 when the patriarch himself attended. Likewise, on 30 November, the feast of St. Andrew, patron of Byzantium, the Holy See sends a high-level delegation to the Phanar to join in the celebration. Thus, twice a year, on 29 June and 30 November, two churches — represented by the brothers Peter and Andrew — work together to restore the bonds of love and communion between them after over a thousand years of estrangement.
The Patriarchs of Constantinople have personally taken part in the celebrations in Rome at least three times (1995, 2004, 2008) while Pope John Paul II took part in the celebrations at the Phanar (1979), as did Pope Benedict XVI (2006) and Pope Francis (2014). When the pope or patriarch is unable to attend, a high-level delegation is sent.
Since the Feast of St. Andrew comes during a busy time in the West — during the season of Advent, when Catholic parishes and homes throughout the world have begun preparing for Christmas — it can be easy to overlook this day. But we shouldn’t. It speaks to a deep and prayerful yearning that goes back to the very words of Christ, “that all may be one.”
We at CNEWA collaborate closely with our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Churches — supporting and celebrating any actions which can bring our two Churches closer together — and we join our prayers this day with all work diligently for Christian unity.