By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
This past summer, a couple from Sacred Heart Parish-Newton accepted an invitation to meet with Orthodox leaders in Russia and Turkey in an effort to build unity between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. The trip also included a rare glimpse into Pope Francis’ home life at the Vatican.
Barb and Jeff Heil were part of a pilgrimage organized by Inside the Vatican magazine and sponsored by a foundation called Urbi et Orbi (to the city and to the world). The Heils said they were personally invited to participate in the pilgrimage based on their previous international outreach to the Orthodox faithful. Barb said the Orthodox and Catholic churches, despite deep rifts, actually have similar beliefs. “The Russian Orthodox church broke off from Catholicism around 1,000 A.D. regarding the nature of Jesus, icons and language. It was really about nationalism, though.” The Greek Orthodox separated early due to distance from Rome, language and doctrinal issues, she said.
Pope Francis wants the Catholic Church to build unity with the Orthodox churches in Europe and Asia to strengthen the faiths globally. The Heils, along with 10 other Catholics from around the world, were part of this mission.
First, the group went to Moscow to meet with top leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the government. “What surprised us was the deep interconnection between church and the state,” Jeff said. During the communist era, the Russian Orthodox Church fell victim to an atheist regime. “Baptisms were done in secret during that time. Everything was done behind the scenes in those years.” Since communism fell, orthodoxy has once again flourished, Jeff said. “When the walls fell down, those deep roots were able to come alive very quickly.
The Russian leaders he spoke to said President Vladimir Putin is religious and wants Russia to be a moral leader of the world. “He is pushing for large families and traditional marriage,” Jeff explained. The government, and thus the church, tends to be impermeable to outside influence, though the openness they showed in meeting with the pilgrimage group was seemed like a positive step, Jeff said.
Next, they met with Bartholemew I, patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox church, in Istanbul, Turkey, in a private audience. Bartholemew I been working to unite the different branches of the Eastern Orthodox church, and has also been working to establish a camaraderie with the Catholic Church. He was the first patriarch since the Great Schism of 1054 to attend a papal inauguration, and the two leaders traveled the Holy Land together in 2014. Bartholemew I, in meeting with the Inside the Vatican group, offered a message to take back to Pope Francis.
Members of the Inside the Vatican group hope their meetings helped open the doors to a future meeting between the two Orthodox patriarchs and the Holy Father. Jeff said this could potentially happen after the two patriarchs meet during Pentecost next year. Currently, the Greek Orthodox Church is more open to the idea than the Russian Orthodox Church.
Reflecting on the meetings in Russia and Turkey, Jeff said the group was able to accomplish one crucial goal: humanizing the Catholic faith for those who don’t necessarily agree with it. “Our purpose was that they could see us as living individuals, learning how we live our lives. … It’s putting a human face and heart with those differences.”
The group spent the final five days of their pilgrimage at The Vatican, sharing their findings with top officials. They stayed at Domus Sanctae Marthae, the Vatican hotel that Pope Francis calls home. They saw the pope several times during the stay, most often in the quaint cafeteria that seats about 20. “At breakfast, the pope would be holding a tray in front of the microwave waiting for his food just like everyone else,” said Barbara Heil.
“The first couple of times you see him, you’re in awe that he’s amongst you. Then, on the third or fourth day, it’s like ‘there he is again!’” Jeff chimed in with a laugh.
Though guests are asked to offer the pope privacy within his home by refraining from photography and not speaking to him unless spoken to, the Heils have fond memories of his warmth and friendliness. He was always quick to offer a smile and a wave to the guests. While unable to divulge details of any personal interactions with the pope at Domus Sanctae Marthae, Barb said, “He’s a lovely man.”