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Orthodox Christians wary of papal visits

NCR Staff

For a sense of what John Paul II will be up against when he ventures into the heartland of Eastern Orthodoxy in coming months, St. Basil’s in Rome offers an illustrative point of departure.

In the heart of the city just around the corner from the Via Veneto, an ultra-chic shopping and dining district, is the Church of St. Basil. Nestled among banks and insurance companies, it’s the sort of real estate most religious organizations can only dream of affording.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II could have had St. Basil’s for nothing. He turned it down, though he’s eager for a base in Rome, because it was offered as a gift from the pope. Instead, construction began Jan. 13 on a new church on the grounds of the Russian ambassador to Italy.

Pope John Paul II, eager for improved relations with Orthodoxy, had badly wanted Alexei to take his gift. Negotiations went on for more than a year. An icon commissioned by the pope was to be presented when St. Basil’s was handed over.

In the end, however, a thousand years of bad blood between East and West proved insuperable. In mid-December, Alexei notified the Vatican he could not accept a handout from the figure that some within the world’s 228 million Orthodox believers still regard as an enemy of the faith.

Signs indicate this anti-papal resentment could be on display when John Paul visits Greece May 4 and 5 and the Ukraine June 23-27, possibly surprising Catholics with its tenacity and depth.

Angry Greek abbots, for example, have vowed resistance, referring to the pope in an open letter as an “arch-heretic” and “the two-horned grotesque monster of Rome.” In the Ukraine, trip planners from the Vatican have faced blockades.

Such sentiments are unlikely to keep the pope away. Having played a central role in the political reunification of Europe, John Paul II has made spiritual reunification his new priority. Above all, this means closer ties with the 15 Eastern Orthodox churches, where John Paul believes a degree of spiritual depth and doctrinal loyalty often missing in the West has been preserved.

It’s unclear, however, over the din of resistance, how many Orthodox may be willing to embrace the papal visit.

John Paul has had success with some of Orthodoxy’s autonomous branches, which divide along national and linguistic lines. He was named “Man of the Year” in Romania following his May 1999 trip there. Armenia and Georgia have also given him warm receptions.

The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, however, remain steadfast in deep reservations about Rome.

In Greece, where 97 percent of the population is baptized into Orthodoxy, the church’s Holy Synod voted not to oppose the papal visit, stressing that it will be a “personal” trip following the footsteps of St. Paul.

The vote has not softened opposition.

A mid-March letter signed by 169 abbots, representing Greece’s 1,750 Orthodox monks and nuns, warned of “dynamic expressions of opposition.” The influential monks of Mount Athos joined in voicing disapproval.

“The church of Greece is trying to discourage protests,” Haris Konidaris, a spokesperson for Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, told NCR. He said he could “guarantee” that the abbots who wrote the letter would not take part in demonstrations.

At the same time, Konidaris said, church leaders cannot control the actions of “more fanatic, fundamentalist” believers.

John Paul arrives in Greece at a moment in which conservative Orthodox factions are already feeling defensive. Thousands marched in Athens in November to oppose eliminating religious affiliation from national identity cards, a government move some regarded as an effort to reduce Orthodoxy’s influence. More than 2 million people signed a petition opposing the plan, out of a total population of 10.5 million.

“Anyone who tampers with our religion will see his arm wither” was among the slogans.

In another frosty signal, Christodoulos has declined to join political leaders planning to greet John Paul at the Athens airport.

In the Ukraine, approximately 1,000 Orthodox believers took part in a cross-bearing procession in early March asking that the papal trip be cancelled. A new group calling itself the “Orthodox Path” has sprung up, picketing the Ukrainian parliament building in Kiev, with the same demand. A Vatican advance team was met in the city of Sevastopol with blockades by Orthodox protesters.

The main Orthodox body in the Ukraine is tied to Moscow, and Alexei has expressed opposition to the trip.

Some Catholic observers say that the depth of feeling points to a possibility of nasty demonstrations when the pope arrives.

“The problem with some Orthodox is not that they don’t know what to believe, but they don’t know how to behave,” said Jesuit Fr. Robert Taft, an expert on Orthodoxy who teaches at Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute.

Taft told NCR there is a growing tide of fundamentalism within Orthodoxy that does not shrink from “vulgar rudeness” in dealing with perceived threats to Orthodoxy’s strongholds.

In that sense, Taft said, perhaps a show of bad manners when the pope comes would be no bad thing. “Maybe it would make these people wake up and realize, ‘Gee, we really are jerks,’ ” he said.

The rifts underlying those tensions run deep.

When discussing relations with Catholicism, many Orthodox begin with 1204, when crusaders sacked Constantinople and desecrated Orthodox sites of worship. That was 150 years after the two branches of Christianity parted company in a bitter split. Konidaris told NCR that he believes John Paul II should use his trip to Greece to ask forgiveness.

“The pope has issued a mea culpa to the Jews,” Konidaris said. “I believe the Orthodox world is waiting for something similar.”

It’s not a request that sits well with Taft, who points out that there had been a massacre of the Latins in Constantinople in 1182, and that it was a Byzantine emperor who connived to send crusaders to the city in order to snatch the throne.

Theologically, debate over the nature and limits of papal authority seems the most serious hurdle. Despite overtures from John Paul about reform, observers say many Orthodox are dubious.

“What the Orthodox see is the unbelievable centralization in the Catholic church in the last century or so. They see no progress at all, I think,” said Msgr. Frederick McManus of Boston, a veteran of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

Another divisive question is the status of so-called “Uniate” churches -- believers who employ Orthodox rites and doctrines but profess loyalty to the pope. There are some 12 million of these Eastern Catholics, with the largest group, 5.2 million, in the Ukraine.

Further, nasty property disputes have erupted over churches seized from Eastern Catholics by the Soviets and turned over to the Orthodox. After the fall of communism, Eastern Catholics began occupying the churches. What the Eastern Catholics call justice, Moscow has decried as “destruction” of Orthodoxy in the Western Ukraine.

More fundamentally, Orthodox leaders often see the very existence of the Uniate churches as an affront.

“The Uniates are the Trojan horse of the Catholic church, a method of proselytism on Orthodox soil,” Konidaris told NCR. “Either these people should accept being Latins, or they should become Orthodox.”

That is an unacceptable either/or for most Catholic officials. While conceding that making separate deals with national churches, in effect dividing the Orthodox communion, is not a viable path to reunion, the Catholic side has nevertheless insisted that existing Eastern Catholics be recognized as legitimate.

Orthodox complaints about proselytism do have some basis in reality, McManus said. Catholic movements such as the Neocatechumenate and the Blue Army, at times still motivated by a Cold War-era desire to “convert Russia,” have reportedly been active in former Soviet territories. McManus said Orthodox officials have complained that such groups are handing out scapulars on the streets of Moscow. Such efforts, however, are probably no more than “marginal phenomena,” he said.

Given all the difficulties, no one expects John Paul’s vision of new unity with the long-separated Orthodox to materialize anytime soon.

“I’m sure the pope doesn’t believe that he’s going to be the one to recompose divided Christendom,” Taft said. “But he’s determined to go to his grave trying.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001