ROME/BETHLEHEM – On Sunday February 26, 2017, Pope Francis visited All Saints Church to mark the 200th anniversary of the Anglican presence in Rome. The visit, which was a first for a pontiff to meet with the Anglican parish in his diocese, saw the blessing of an icon of Christ the Savior made by the Bethlehem Icon Centre (BIC)
Commissioned by All Saints Churchwarden Mr. James Hadley and made by Ian Knowles, the Director of the Bethlehem Icon Centre, the icon of Christ the Savior draws inspiration of a 6th century icon of Christ in Glory displayed at the Lateran Palace in Rome. Legend has it that the icon, which is referred to as “not made by human hand” or Acheropita, was written by St. Luke and the angels.
“Reputedly, a miraculous icon! Whenever Rome was under threat, especially in the early centuries, the Pope would process round barefoot carrying this image” said Ian Knowles.
According to the Book of the Pontiffs, Pope Stephen II used to carry the Acheropita on his shoulders to ward off Lombard attacks. The icon was also used in street processions on occasions such as the Annunciation, Dormition and the Nativity of Mary.
Another inspiration behind the icon was manuscript illuminator Matthew Paris, a 13th century Benedictine monk, whose drawing of Christ in Majesty can be found in his manuscript Chronica Majora.
The process of making the icon of Christ the Savior took ten days to complete. “I didn’t have a day when I couldn’t paint. There wasn’t a day where I was struggling to be motivated. I was really carried! It was quite extraordinary!” said Ian with expressions of amazement dominating his face.
This is not the first time that the Bethlehem Icon Centre produces a respected work. Last year, two icons depicting the Annunciation scene were made and installed in Lichfield Cathedral in England. “Being able to make this icon, which will be very prominent in the church, will be a lasting testament to the rapprochement between the Catholic church and the Anglican church” Ian pointed out.
The visit of Pope Francis, which was hailed as historic, united not only Anglican bishops but Orthodox Christian leaders as well. “The fact that this is ecumenical is very important” Ian said. “We are an ecumenical community. When Bishop Joseph Zerey wrote to me, upon opening this center, he told me that we are doing the real ecumenism. For me it’s a very important document. The bishop is telling us our charism, what we are to be in the church. This ecumenical element is proving to be very important”.
The gesture of exchanging gifts between the Popes and the Anglican leaders had also been prominent during their meetings. In 1966, and just after the signing of the Common Declaration, Pope Paul VI gave his episcopal ring to Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury. Fifty years later and in commemoration of this meeting, Pope Francis gave the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Justin Welby a replica of the pastoral staff of St. Gregory the Great, which the Holy See considered it as “a fine symbol of the profound ecumenical significance of this gathering” and “a shared symbol of our walking together towards unity and mission”.
In turn, Dr. Justin Welby handed his holiness a pectoral Cross of Nails, a symbol of their partnership in the work of reconciliation.
It’s the Bethlehem Icon Centre this time that offers a gesture, though commissioned and not a gift, that represents an ecumenical sign that symbolizes, and speaks more powerful than words, the rapprochement between the Catholics and the Anglicans.