His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been granted the Ecumenical Award of St. Nicholas of Myra by the theological faculty of Alupia, in southern Italy. The ceremony will take place today, December 6, on the New Calendar feast of St. Nicholas, reports Vatican Radio.

In his letter for the occasion, Pope Francis calls the honorary award an “important recognition” and “sign of gratitude” for the patriarch’s contribution “to the work of strengthening unity between all believers in Christ.”

According to Orthodox teaching, unity of believers requires unity of belief and only truly happens when believers in Christ unite themselves in His true Body, the Orthodox Church. Such union is a necessary presupposition before common prayer and worship can happen, according to the Orthodox conscience.

Meanwhile, in his letter the pope entrusts the patriarch, his “dear brother Bartholomew,” to the protection of St. Nicholas in common prayer for the sake of “the desired achievement of full unity amongst Christians.” Such ecumenical overtures often draw heavy criticism from many Orthodox hierarchs, monastics, and laity.

The award was named in honor of St. Nicholas because he is venerated in many different Christian confessions, thus the theological faculty uses his memory as a symbol of unity. As the Orthodox Church recalls, St. Nicholas was a grace-filled hierarch who strictly defended the divinity of Christ at the First Ecumenical Council, not allowing for any deviation in theology.