For the first time in nearly 500 years, the Pope and the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury will join in public prayers Wednesday, an event that hasn’t taken place since the Church of England broke from Rome in the 16th century.
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of official dialogue between the two faiths, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby will together pray vespers, or evening prayer, in the ancient church of San Gregorio al Celio in the Italian capital.
The church of St. Gregory holds special significance for the meeting since the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Augustine, served as prior there before being sent by Pope Gregory the Great to evangelize England in 597.
The encounter will mark the first time a Roman pontiff has joined an Archbishop of Canterbury in joint public prayer since King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1534, declaring himself the head of the Church of England.
During the vespers liturgy, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby will preach a homily and a joint declaration will be read aloud. Pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops from around the world will also be symbolically sent out on mission together.
The rite will include elements of Anglican Evensong and Catholic Vespers and will be accompanied by the Sistine Chapel choir as well as the choir from the Canterbury Cathedral.
On Thursday, Archbishop Welby will meet in private audience with the Pope. The Anglican Primate will wear the episcopal ring given to Anglican Archbishop Michael Ramsey by Pope Paul VI in 1966, as a sign of “profound friendship and respect.”
From that historic encounter the Anglican Centre of Rome was founded and it, too, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. While in Rome, Justin Welby will host a dinner to celebrate “five decades of promotion of Christian unity in a divided world.”
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