I am currently reading the late Sir Steven Runciman’s The Fall of Constantinople, which, like all of his books, is fascinating. Granted, Runciman was always much more of a writer than a historian, and he was notorious for liberally imagining some of the scenes in his books, but I found his description of 28 May 1453, the day before the final and successful Turkish assault on the Imperial city, extremely moving.
The years preceding 1453 had been marked by inconclusive attempts to end the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church, culminating in official reunion at the Council of Florence in 1439. The act of union was agreed to by Emperor John VIII Palæologus and Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople but rejected by many of the clergy and laity under their jurisdiction. Two successive pro-union patriarchs eventually fled to Rome, and attempts by Emperor Constantine XI to enforce the union only created deep resentment among those opposed to it; but the superficial reconciliation may have facilitated the sharing in the defence of the city by Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans. At any rate, with Sultan Mehmet II outside the walls, the Turkish troops preparing to breach the walls and sack the city, priorities among the defenders soon changed:
The day was nearly over. Already crowds were moving towards the great Church of the Holy Wisdom. For the past five months no pious Greek had stepped through its portals to hear the Sacred Liturgy defiled by Latins and by renegades. But on that evening the bitterness was ended. Barely a citizen, except for the soldiers on the walls, stayed away from this desperate service of intercession. Priests who held union with Rome to be a mortal sin now came to the altar to serve with their Unionist brothers. The Cardinal was there, and beside him bishops who would never acknowledge his authority; and all the people came to make confession and take communion, not caring whether Orthodox or Catholic administered it. There were Italians and Catalans along with the Greeks. The golden mosaics, studded with the images of Christ and His Saints and the Emperors and Empresses of Byzantium, glimmered in the light of a thousand lamps and candles; and beneath them for the last time the priests in their splendid vestments moved in the solemn rhythm of the Liturgy. At this moment there was union in the Church of Constantinople.
As we both now face a cultural enemy more pervasive than the Turks in the form of material secularism, may God grant us the grace to find such a real unity among the Eastern and Western halves of the Church. May Rome and Constantinople (and Antioch and Alexandria) commune once more in the full beauty and harmony of their traditions, free from angry recriminations and petty accusations, motivated first and foremost not from fear, but by a spirit of true Christian charity.