Rome and Dublin (12/13/00) - From Serge Keleher
It was the wish of Pope John Paul II that the program in Rome for the Great
Jubilee of the year 2000 would include major events involving the Eastern
Churches. However, there was some confusion regarding the Byzantine section
of the program: originally there was to have been a Divine Liturgy on
Sunday, 1 October, the Feast of the Holy Protection of the Theotokos.
Eventually, though, this Liturgy was cancelled and instead it was decided to
have a solemn celebration of the Akathistos Hymn on Friday, 8 December 2000,
in the Patriarchal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Pope John Paul II has
made several important efforts during his Pontificate to make the Akathistos
Hymn better known and to encourage its use, even among the Latins, so his
choice of the Akathistos Hymn for this occasion was quite appropriate.
Thanks to some kind benefactors, I was able to travel to Rome for this
occasion, arriving on Tuesday, 5 December, together with Conor O'Toole of
the Greek-Catholic congregation in Dublin. We had rooms in the Ukrainian
pilgrim hospice on Piazza Madonna dei Monti, adjacent to the Church of
Saints Sergius and Bacchus; this church is only a short walk from Santa
Maria Maggiore, and very near the Pontifical Oriental Institute, the
Pontifical Russian College and the Redemptorist Church on the via Merulana,
besides being only a block from the Metropolitana station on the via Cavour.
There have been renovations recently in the pilgrim hospice; accommodations
are comfortable and moderately priced. The only disadvantage is that it is
impossible to make outgoing telephone calls, so one is best off to have a
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings I was at the Divine Liturgy in the
Church of Saint Antony the Abbot (attached to the Russicum, this church is
also used by the Pontifical Oriental Institute and by many Greek-Catholic
pilgrims to Rome). On Wednesday, 6 December, Bishop John,
the Exarch in Prague, was the main celebrant; on Thursday, 7 December,
Bishop John of Mukachevo-Uzhhorod was the main celebrant and on Friday, 8
December Bishop Christo, the Exarch in Sofia (Bulgaria) was the main
celebrant. Similarly in all the other Greek-Catholic churches in Rome
hierarchs were arriving from all over the world for the Akathistos. Also on
Wednesday I enjoyed having dinner at the Oriental Institute, and private
meetings with the librarian, Father Francois Gick, and the Vice-Rector,
Father Archimandrite Robert Taft. That evening a friend from Australia and I
had supper together at a favourite restaurant. Thursday I visited the
Pontifical Greek College and met the new Rector, Father Archimandrite Manuel
(who is a monk of Montserrat). That afternoon, Bishop Anargyros arrived from
Athens and honored Mr. O'Toole and myself by joining us for supper.
A good-hearted Bishop generously gave Mr. O'Toole and me favourable tickets
for the Akathistos on Friday afternoon. I had not anticipated the enormous
crowd which gathered for this service. Not only were tickets necessary to
gain entrance to the Patriarchal Basilica; one even needed tickets to stand
in the square outside! Some of the Greek-Catholic parishes from Calabria,
Sicily and other parts of Italy came as groups, with their church banners.
Prudently, we went in to the Basilica an hour or so ahead of the service
(and even that early the tickets were checked rigorously), so as not to have
to fight the crowds. Thus we were able to speak with other friends as they
came in, including Bishop Basil of Stamford, and we had an excellent view of
Two large icons of the Lord and the Theotokos stood in for an iconostasis.
The wonder-working Icon of the Theotokos salus populi romani which is kept
in the Borghese Chapel of the Patriarchal Basilica was brought into the nave
for this most special occasion, and set on a stand with a bank of flowers in
front of it; the Akathistos would take place before this wonder-working
Icon. The several choirs were accommodated on the north side of the altar
(left to the view of the congregation). The choirs of the Pontifical Greek
College, the Pontifical Romanian College, the Pontifical Russian College,
the Pontifical Ukrainian College (augmented by students from the other
Ukrainian houses in Rome), a mixed choir from Hungary and a group of Arab
chanters from several theological institutes in Rome were to sing the
various portions of the service. For most of the time that we were waiting
the choirs were preparing, singing various parts of the service in one last
rehearsal. Then the Processional Cross, thuribles, torch-bearers and
Exapteryga went to the doors to lead the procession into the Basilica.
Unfortunately, Pope John Paul himself was the only Patriarch present.
Patriarch Maximos V, who has just retired, was unable to leave the hospital
in Beirut, and his successor, Patriarch Gregory III, was not yet enthroned
in Damascus and thus did not consider it proper to come to Rome;
the Patriarchal Vicar in Damascus, Archbishop Isidore of Pelusium,
represented them both. Patriarch Myroslav-Ivan of the Ukrainians is
bed-ridden and unable to make such a trip; his plenipotentiary auxiliary,
Bishop Lubomyr, represented him.
The Byzantine hierarchs (representing almost all the Greek-Catholic Local
Churches) were garbed in full Eucharistic vestments, at the special
direction of the Holy See (for the Akathistos, a hierarch is normally vested
in Mandyas). The hierarchs - many more than I could count, but coming from
every continent except Antarctica - arrived in procession and were seated
between the Borghese chapel and the altar.
As is customary, the Pope walked last in the Procession, blessing everyone
to the left and right as the assembly applauded him. The Pope was seated to
the right of the altar, flanked by two of the Byzantine hierarchs.
Bishop Christo of Bulgaria and Bishop Lubomyr from L'viv began the service,
assisted by two deacons. The opening blessing and "usual
beginning" were sung in Church-Slavonic, followed by Psalm 142 in
Ukrainian and Theos Kyrios (The Lord is God .) in Greek with the Apolytikion
for the Conception of Saint Anne (observed on 9 December). An Italo-Greek
Bishop led the first three Kontakia and Oikoi of the Akathistos in Greek.
During the Akathistos the hierarchs and the assembly were standing; during
the Canon and psalms, they were seated. The first and third odes of the
Canon were sung in Church-Slavonic. For some reason - presumably an
oversight - the Heirmoi of the Canon were omitted. One could regret that
none of the Canon was sung in Greek; the Greek chant for this Canon is
distinctive and much-loved.
The Ukrainian chanters then sang the next three Oikoi and Kontakia of the
Akathistos, with Bishop Lubomyr serving. Then the Romanian chanters sang the
fourth, fifth and sixth Odes of the Canon (again without the Heirmoi).
Bishop Constantine (Szilard Kerestes) of Hajudorog then served as the
Hungarian mixed choir sang the following three Oikoi and Kontakia of the
Akathistos. Rather to my surprise, the Hungarians followed the Greek usage
of having only the leader (Bishop Constantine, in this case) recite most of
the "Rejoice ." verses of the Oikoi, instead of having the singers
and assembly chant them together, as the Slav practice is (and as was done
on this occasion in both Church-Slavonic and Ukrainian).
After the Ninth Ode, Bishop Christo and the Church-Slavonic chanters
concluded the actual Akathistos itself. Then the Ukrainian chanters sang the
opening verses of Psalm 148, whereupon the Arabic chanters sang the prosomia
for the Conception of Saint Anne; the Romanian
chanters sang the final Doxasticon.
Pope John Paul II preached a relatively short homily in Italian, in a strong
voice with good delivery. It was evident that the Holy Father had enjoyed
the service, and was pleased by the massive attendance. Metropolitan Lucian
of Alba Iulia, Fagaras, Blaj and All Romania
led the Trisagion prayers; the Romanian deacon chanted the Ectene. The Greek
chanters sang the Kontakion of the pre-festive period before the Nativity of
the Lord. Pope John Paul gave the pontifical blessing, and Metropolitan
Lucian gave the Dismissal.
As the Holy Father venerated the Icon the choirs sang the Polychronion for
the Holy Father, the Hierarchs, and all Orthodox Christians, in Greek and in
Church-Slavonic. The hierarchs, clergy and
faithful continued to venerate the icon for a long time after the
recessional; the service itself had taken exactly two hours. There were
professional video-cameras going throughout the service, so one may hope
that a full video-recording will be available.
As usual, the Vatican Polyglot Press produced a service-booklet for the
occasion, in two colours with some lovely full-color icon reproductions. The
ushers, of course, tried to limit the booklets to "one per
person"; as soon as the service concluded the cognoscenti were shoving
booklets into every available pocket (these service-booklets make nice
Afterwards I took the opportunity to speak with many friends who had come
for the service. Eventually four of us went out for supper, still dazzled by
the beauty of this wonderful service.
The Akathistos service, uniting as it did so many different ethnic and
language groups who share the Byzantine liturgical tradition, managed to
remind me of our Greek-Catholic congregation in Dublin, where we also use
several languages, rejoice in different chant traditions and have faithful
from diverse backgrounds, praying together without quarrels or chauvinism.
People in the nave of the Patriarchal Basilica did their best to sing each
part of the service in each of the various languages (using the
service-booklet distributed to everyone). Perhaps they didn't get all
the accents right, but everyone was certainly united in the common prayer
In retrospect, however, one may be surprised that no portion of the service
was in English. English is perhaps not everyone's favourite language, and is
certainly not an "original" language of the Byzantine tradition,
but in these final days of the twentieth century it would have been well to
recognize that English has become the first language of substantial numbers
of Greek-Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. The Pontifical Oriental Institute
has noted that the materials which they publish in English sell much better
than the materials which they publish in other
languages. It would surely have been possible to bring a large choir from
America, and there were hierarchs present from Australia, Canada, England
and the USA.
Saturday morning I served the Divine Liturgy at the Irish College, in the
Chapel of the Irish Martyrs. It was the first time that the Divine Liturgy
of Saint John Chrysostom had been offered in Rome in the Irish language
(Patriarch Maximos V of Antioch approved the Irish translation on
1 October 1999). Going back and forth to the Irish College one could not
help but notice that Rome was still packed with pilgrims, and that the
transportation system was strained to catch up.
My return flight to Dublin was scheduled to take off from Fiumicino at 6 PM,
so after lunch I threw my luggage together, said good-bye to the pilgrim
hospice on Madonna dei Monti, and raced off to the airport. As it turned
out, the plane did not leave Rome until shortly after midnight! Oh well;
many years ago a holy bishop told me that any pilgrimage to the Mother of
God will always involve some hardship. One of my kind faithful in Dublin
made the supreme sacrifice and collected me at the airport around 3:30 AM.
Divine Liturgy on Sundays in Dublin is in the afternoon, so I managed to get
Despite the late arrival home in Dublin, the visit to Rome for the
Akathistos had been well worth it, every minute. My great thanks to those
who made it possible for me, to my friends in Rome for their outstanding
hospitality and to all those who accompanied me with their prayers.