A round image of Mary and baby Jesus from a wall painting
Sharing the Acathist Hymn

for Jubilee 2000

Photo of Pope John Paul and Bishop John Elya shaking hands

Photo is from a previous meeting between His Holiness Pope John Paul II and Bishop John Elya.

Shortly before Christmas 2000, twenty-eight Melkite pilgrims with Bishop John Elya visited Rome and participated in the Akathistos for Jubilee 2000 along with His Holiness Pope John Paul II. This service was an especially important both symbolically and spiritually.

The service was so well attended that many had to watch from outside on large screen monitors. Among the Melkite clergy attending were: Mitred and Patriarchal Archimandrite John Mowatt, one of our group of pilgrims; Archimandrite Elias Jarawan, Rector of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and Representative of the Melkite Patriarch in Rome; Archimandrite Mtanios Haddad,BSO, Procurator of the Basilian Salvatorian Fathers in Rome, and Father Antoine Dib, BSO, pursuing studies in Rome and residing at the Pontifical Greek College. After the service, the bishops greeted the Pope individually.

The following is Fr. Serge Keleher’s first hand account of the experience. Archimandrite Keleher is the editor of the Eastern Churches Journal and serves the Eastern Catholics in Dublin, Ireland. His letter recounting the Akathistos for Jubilee 2000 is both personal and deeply moving. For those not fortunate enough to have shared the experience, this letter brings the event to life.

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 mobile telephone.

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.

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 favorable 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 the service.

I had the opportunity to greet Bishop John Elya, the Melkite Eparch of Newton. I took the occasion to offer Sayedna my very warm compliments on the auspicious election of Patriarch Gregory III.

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 gifts).

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 and song.

In retrospect, however, one may be surprised that no portion of the service was in English. English is perhaps not everyone’s favorite 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 some sleep.

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.

Serge Keleher