James Bone Rome
Published at 12:01AM, May 28 2014
The Pope may change the date of Easter so that Catholics and Orthodox Christians can celebrate Christ’s resurrection on the same day.
The head of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic church raised the vexed topic in his historic meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians.
On his flight back to Rome, Francis said that the two had discussed whether “something can by done” about the date for Easter. “It is a bit ridiculous: ‘Tell me, when does your Christ rise from the dead?’ ‘Mine will next week.’ ‘Well, mine was resurrected last week’,” Francis observed.
Easter is the holiest festival in Christianity. The fact that it falls on different dates in the Catholic and Orthodox churches is a hugely symbolic obstacle to Christian unity. The Council of Nicaea, called by the Christian emperor Constantine in AD325 in what is now northwestern Turkey, established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. At the time, the Roman world used the imperfect Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 46BC. By the 16th century, the Julian calendar was ten days out of sync with the equinox.
The problem began in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII instituted a new calendar for the Catholic church, which was adopted by Britain and its American colonies in 1752.
The Eastern Orthodox churches, however, continued to follow the Julian calendar, which is now 13 days out of sync. As a result, Orthodox and Catholic Easter can fall on the same day, as they did this year — or as much as five weeks apart, as last year. Agreeing a single date would be a boon for Christians in the Middle East, where Catholics and Orthodox often live side by side. The Pope noted that even in Rome many Orthodox worshippers used Catholic churches.
In 1997, a meeting of the World Council of Churches at Aleppo, in Syria, discussed a proposal to use the Nicaean formula with the date based on astronomical observation of the moon. Paul Meyendorff, professor of liturgical theology at the St Vladimir’s Orthodox seminary in New York, said that the advantage of the Aleppo proposal was that it was based on neither calendar. “In most years, the Gregorian calendar is correct, although there are a few years where it is a week off,” he said.
With the Russian and other Slavic Orthodox churches still firmly opposed to changing the date of their Easter, he said, the chances of agreement at this stage were “nil”.