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Pope woos the East

NCR Staff

Looking ahead to scheduled trips to Eastern Orthodox strongholds of Greece and Ukraine, John Paul II continued to press for better relations by including several elements of Orthodox worship in his Easter Mass.

The pope took advantage of the fact that Easter Sunday fell on the same day in both East and West this year to give the April 15 Mass in St. Peter’s Square a distinctively Byzantine feel.

Signs from the Orthodox side, however, suggest the papal gestures have yet to bear fruit.

John Paul opened the ceremony with veneration of an antique icon called the Achiropoetos (which translates as “not painted by human hands”). The six-foot-tall image, which is probably Eastern in origin, is usually positioned by the Holy Steps in front of Rome’s cathedral of St. John Lateran.

After the reading of the gospel, St. Peter’s was filled with the sound of the hymn “Stichi,” sung in Russian by a 12-member Byzantine choir. It commemorates the finding of the empty tomb by Jesus’ female followers.

Finally, during the prayers of the faithful, an intention was offered “for the expectations and the hopes of all those who call themselves Christian” and “for full communion between the churches of the East and the West.”

John Paul travels to Greece May 4 and 5, and will be in Ukraine June 23-27.

Yet even as the tokens of papal goodwill were being offered, new indications of reluctance among the Orthodox arose.

The April 15 edition of the popular Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana carried an interview with Alexei II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church, who claims the loyalty of the largest of Orthodoxy’s three branches in Ukraine.

Alexei complained that the Russian Orthodox leader in Ukraine, Metropolitan Vladimir, was not consulted before the Vatican made its plans.

“From the beginning, the leaders of the Catholic church have said this visit is one of the stages of the process of reconciliation and improvement of relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. If this is truly the aim of the Vatican, then it appears to me that the better way to reach it would be to listen to the request of Vladimir.”

Vladimir wrote a Jan. 22 open letter to the pope asking him not to meet with other branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine not recognized by Moscow. He suggested the trip be postponed.

It’s widely believed that John Paul’s eventual goal is a trip to Russia. Alexei said that before a papal visit could be considered, Catholic and Orthodox leaders would have to come to terms about property disputes in Ukraine centering on the Greek Catholics, believers who follow Orthodox traditions but profess loyalty to Rome.

The Vatican would also have to take steps against proselytism by Catholics in Orthodox territories, Alexei said.

John Paul has written a personal letter to Vladimir, delivered on April 7 by papal trip planner Cardinal Roberto Tucci. The content has not been released, and to date there is no sign of a response.

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

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001