For 800 years the bones of two of the Orthodox Church's most famous saints have been held at the Vatican, a symbol of the deepest division in Christianity
Sun 21 Nov 2004
Now the remains of St John Chrysostom and St Gregory Nazianzen are to be returned to Istanbul where they were stolen by drunken soldiers attached to the Fourth Crusade who sacked Constantinople in 1204.
At a historic reconciliation ceremony at the Vatican next weekend, Pope John Paul II plans to open up a new age of inter-denominational Christian co-operation when he hands back the bones.
Next Saturday, the frail 81-year-old leader of the world's Roman Catholics, will for the second time in six months publicly embrace the 51-year-old Turkish-born head of the Greek Orthodox Community, Archbishop Bartholomew I, and ask forgiveness for what theologians call "sins of action and omission" by Catholics against Orthodox Christians including the sacking of Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Monsignor Mark Langham, administrator at Westminster Cathedral, told Scotland on Sunday after his meeting at the Patriarchate in Istanbul with the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians: "A papal envoy will carry them with him from Rome to Istanbul with Archbishop Bartholomew after the historic meeting between the two Christian leaders.
"The Pope and the Archbishop both seek a return to the days when the Christian Church was undivided and we hope and pray that such unity will one day be achieved."
In 1204, Constantinople, then ruled by the last of the Roman emperors and a universally respected and fabulously wealthy Orthodox Patriarch, was sacked by Venetians and a heavily armed rabble from France, Germany, Italy and England belonging to the army of the Fourth Crusade. That army set up a Latin kingdom that ruled Constantinople for 57 years.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476AD, the seat of "Roman" power was moved from Rome to Constantinople which was widely acclaimed as "the New Rome". The city was named after Emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity, turning it into a state religion and ending decades of persecution.
The Patriarch behaved as if he was the head of the Christian community throughout the world and bitterly resented a later challenge from the Bishop of Rome to be pre-eminent Christian leader.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, soldiers plundered the city's treasury, palaces and churches. They attacked Orthodox priests, accusing them of heresy and sometimes witchcraft.
They raped women and children and removed vast quantities of gold and silver from palaces and churches, taking sacred vases and priceless works of art back with them to Venice and Rome.
The mosaic floors of the world's most magnificent cathedral, the Haghia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom, were polluted with blood, filth and animal excrement.
At one point drunken crusaders encouraged a prostitute to sit on the Patriarch's golden throne where she sang obscene songs and carried out lewd dances and sex acts.
"With one consent," wrote the historian Nicetas Choniates (1155-1215), "all the most heinous sins and crimes were committed by all with equal zeal."
Simon Jennings, a student of church history who was part of a 40-strong pilgrimage to Istanbul from Westminster Cathedral, said last night: "This is something that still haunts the minds and souls of the world's Orthodox Christians.
"Unspeakable crimes against the Orthodox Church were committed and the Pope has already apologised for what was done 800 years ago."
Three years ago, the Pope stunned the Christian world when he asked forgiveness for Roman Catholic "sins against the Orthodox faith", citing the 1204 sacking of Constantinople, during his controversial visit to Greece, the first by a Roman pontiff for almost 13 centuries.
He told the Greek Orthodox leader, Archbishop Christodoulos: "For the occasions past and present, when the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by actions and omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of him."
Later, Archbishop Christodoulos presented the Polish-born pontiff with a long list of "offences" from the 11th century Great Schism which divides Christianity into Eastern and Western branches.
Even the Pope's traditional gesture of kissing the soil of a country on a first visit was in doubt in May 2001 because of fears it could incite riots by Orthodox Christians opposed to any reconciliation with the Vatican. Instead, he kissed a basket of soil held by two children from Greece's tiny Catholic community.
On November 3, Catholic and a handful of Anglican pilgrims met Archbishop Bartholomew at the Patriarchate in Istanbul. During their 30-minute meeting, the Archbishop greeted Monsignor Mark Langham like a long lost son.
The Archbishop told him that the Pope and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor were most welcome to visit him in Istanbul. "Tell them to come," he said.
He reminded the pilgrims that Catholics and Orthodox Christians once belonged to the same "undivided church".
Bartholomew praised the Pope for giving him "the sign of brotherly love" by promising to return relics so sacred to Eastern Christianity.
Catholic sources said that in the twilight years of his papacy, John Paul has been pressing for a "purification of memory", expressing regret for sins by Catholics against Jews, Protestants and others.
324AD Constantine becomes Roman emperor. He moves the seat of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople, called the New Rome.
1054 The Pope in Rome excommunicates the Patriarch in Constantinople. The row is about the nature of Christ and Constantinople's refusal to recognise the Pope as head of the Catholic Church.
1204 The Pope supports a Venetian financed Fourth Crusade. But on the way to Jerusalem, the Crusaders decide to attack Constantinople. Rampaging Christian knights and soldiers remove the bones of St John Chrysostom (below) and St Gregory Nazianzen.
1453 Constantinople falls to the Turks and to Islam. The Church of Holy Wisdom is turned into a mosque. There the last of the Roman emperors, Constantine Palaeologus, dies in battle. Later, Constantinople is changed to Istanbul and remains the heart of the Ottoman Empire until 1918 when it ceases to exist. Istanbul becomes the capital of secular Turkey.
Read this article on the Scotsman website.