National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

From left: Archbishop William Levada, Pope John Paul II, Metropolitan Anthony and Bishop William Swing.
-- L'Osservatore Romano
Bishops’ pilgrimage offers symbol of unity


Aiming to offer a symbol of unity and peace in a time of war, three Christian bishops from San Francisco -- Greek Orthodox, Episcopal and Roman Catholic -- moved across Europe in early April on an unusual ecumenical pilgrimage.

Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony, Episcopal Bishop William Swing and Roman Catholic Archbishop William Levada were to visit the centers of their respective branches of Christianity -- Canterbury, Rome, and Istanbul -- jointly meeting with the leaders of each Christian body and praying together at holy sites.

The bishops met Pope John Paul II in a Vatican audience April 7.

After their audience with the pope, the three men sat down for an interview with NCR at Rome’s Residenza Paolo VI, just off St. Peter’s Square. They described the purpose of their pilgrimage as promoting Christian unity, as well as offering a witness to peaceful coexistence against the backdrop of the Iraq conflict.

“Our forefathers were at each other’s throats,” said Swing, a longtime stalwart of ecumenical and interfaith relations who founded the United Religions Initiative in 1993. “I feel enormous gratitude that I live in a time when the Holy Spirit has led us to deep respect, affection and cooperation, when we can make this sort of trip together.”

The three are accompanied by 11 family members and aides, including Swing’s wife Mary and the new auxiliary bishop of San Francisco, Ignatius Wang, the first Catholic bishop of Chinese ancestry in the United States. The group was originally supposed to be larger, but several participants backed out over security concerns related to the war in Iraq.

In England, the group was hosted in the House of Lords by one of four Muslim members of the house. In Rome, the group stopped for prayer at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, a traditional ecumenical site where John Paul II invited an Orthodox Metropolitan and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury to assist him in opening the holy door for the Jubilee Year of 2000.

On April 6, Levada celebrated Mass for the group before the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi. The group also planned to meet with Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Metropolitan Anthony said the trip would help form an ecumenical consciousness.

“For me, the greatest significance of this undertaking is that when I look at these two men, I see brothers, and not just on a basic human level, but brother bishops,” he said.

One sign of ecumenical progress was immediate. When Levada presented John Paul with a contribution of $50,000 for papal charities, an Orthodox lay man in the group, George Marcus, immediately vowed to match the amount.

Levada said that in his private exchange with the bishops, the pope recalled his 1987 trip to San Francisco. Swing said John Paul remarked that San Francisco “faces the pacific,” expressing sympathy for the complex pastoral realities religious leaders in the city confront.

Metropolitan Anthony said that when he mentioned that the group was going on to meet the Patriarch of Constantinople, the pope responded, “Ah, Bartholomew,” and asked the metropolitan to express his greetings.

The pope linked the ecumenical thrust of the visit with the war in Iraq in his prepared remarks.

“At a time of conflict and grave unrest in our world, I pray that your witness to the gospel message of reconciliation, solidarity and love will be a sign of hope and a promise of the unity of a humanity reborn and renewed in the grace of Christ,” he said.

Swing said the group thanked the pope for his stand against the war. Swing pointed out that all three bishops have also spoken against the Iraq conflict in San Francisco.

Levada said the decision to go ahead with the trip against the backdrop of the international situation was important.

“This is not a time to pull up bridges and stop talking to people,” he said. “This is not a time to be distant. Especially in Turkey, I think our presence will be a sign of solidarity.”

One point of tension on the trip has been eucharistic sharing. While Episcopalians permit access to their Communion services for members of other Christian churches, both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions have more restrictive rules about giving and receiving Communion. As they travel, each member of the party is following the discipline of his own church.

Metropolitan Anthony said he was coping with the discomfort of not being able to participate in the other’s Eucharist by “asking for God’s forgiveness at Roman Catholic services.”

“I swore an oath as an Orthodox bishop, and I will uphold that oath,” he said. “The Eucharist is not a means to unity but a result of it. In the meantime, as someone who desires Christian unity with all my heart, I will strive to work out our differences.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: