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Pope in Romania: Hints of unity but no breakthroughs


John Paul II billed his May 7-9 visit to Romania, the first by a pope to a country with a predominantly Orthodox population, as an important step along the road toward unity between the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity.

When it was over he could tout much potentially important symbolism but little by way of substantive breakthroughs.

John Paul’s 86th foreign visit -- he has spent 20 percent of his pontificate on the road, the equivalent of more than two years -- was styled as an overture to Orthodoxy. The pope and the Romanian patriarch, Teoctist, attended each other’s liturgies during the visit, though neither man took communion from the other. They also issued a joint statement denouncing the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and calling for a halt to NATO bombing.

In an especially symbolic gesture, John Paul invited Teoctist to join him in the popemobile, and together they blessed crowds in the Romanian capital of Bucharest.

Romania, a country of 22 million, has a little more than 2 million Catholics.

“The second millennium of Christian history began with a painful wounding of the unity of the church,” Teoctist said, referring to the schism between East and West in 1054. He said the end of the millennium was now witnessing a commitment to restoring that unity.

Reunion with the East has long been a theme of John Paul’s papacy. He has spoken frequently of the need for the church to “breathe with both lungs.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s close collaborator and top doctrinal adviser, said in a 1996 interview that John Paul sees Christian history in three epochs: a first millennium of unity, a second of division, and a third, just dawning, of reunion.

Teoctist echoed that hope, saying that the aim of ecumenical dialogue “is very clear: We want to return to our roots, to the first millennium when Rome was first among equals.”

At the end of the pope’s visit, however, no new theological understanding had been brokered that would remove what has long been the primary stumbling block to reunion -- differing understandings between East and West of papal primacy.

Nor did the pope have much progress to show on the status of Romania’s Catholic minority. Many of the country’s Eastern-rite Catholics were forced underground after 1948, when the communists arrested many of their bishops and priests and confiscated church property. Today Catholics and Orthodox are at odds over what to do about that property.

The bulk of the Catholic population in Romania is concentrated along the border with Hungary, in Transylvania. Though the pope, when he travels, usually insists on visiting areas where Catholics are concentrated, in this case Transylvania was not on his itinerary.

The pope called upon Romania’s Catholics to be “artisans of communion” with their Orthodox neighbors.

Wire services contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999