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Despite tensions, ecumenical conviviality takes precedence

After controversial recent trips to Greece and Ukraine, where Orthodox authorities demanded apologies for past Catholic wrongs and railed against the pope’s very presence, the ecumenical conviviality between East and West in Armenia Sept. 25-27 was almost dazzling.

In Kazakhstan, there were likewise reminders that Catholics and Orthodox can live in peace, but also hints of the divisions that often prevent them from doing so.

In Armenia, John Paul II and the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos Karekin II, appeared together at every event. They blessed crowds together, prayed together and broke bread together. They embraced and kissed in public like long-lost relatives.

John Paul was even Karekin’s houseguest, the first time a pope has lodged with the head of an Eastern church.

(Strictly speaking, the Armenian Apostolic church is not “Orthodox” in the way the Russian or Greek churches are. Armenia became the first Christian nation in 301, but was cut off from world Christianity after the fourth century by Persian invaders and today considers itself nonaligned. It has 7 million followers, with 2 million in Armenia and the rest in a diaspora scattered around the world).

Not everyone, it must be said, was feeling the warmth of brotherly love. Some priests serving the tiny Armenian Catholic church of 150,000, which uses the same rite as the Armenian Apostolic church but is loyal to Rome, complained about being marginalized. John Paul celebrated Mass Sept. 27 in the Latin rite, not the Armenian rite of the local community, and it was only a few days before the pope arrived that Nerses Der Nersessian, the Armenian Catholic patriarch, was cleared to appear in public at his side.

The reason given by most observers is that, as in many Orthodox countries, the Orthodox hierarchy is happy to have good relations with the Vatican on a theological level, but does not want competition with what they see as Catholic “Trojan horses” on their soil.

“They’re doing everything they can to dampen public interest,” Fr. Anton Totonjian, an Armenian Catholic priest working in Australia, told NCR. “They don’t want the pope’s message to reach the people.”

Still, most observers found the symbols of unity exchanged by John Paul and Karekin impressive, including a mutual blessing during an ecumenical liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator Sept. 26.

On Sept. 27, John Paul and Karekin signed a common declaration pledging to “pray and work to hasten the day of communion among all the members of Christ’s faithful flock, with due regard for our respective sacred traditions.”

Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, is considered the “canonical territory” of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Alexei II. Once again, John Paul arrived on Moscow’s territory without an invitation from Alexei. This time Orthodox officials complained but did not take to the streets as in Kiev.

At 180,000 adherents, Catholicism is a tiny minority in this country of 15 million. The Orthodox number 6.6 million.

Some Orthodox clergy tried to discourage interest in the pope among their faithful. At the Sept. 23 papal Mass in Astana, 17-year-old Irina Sokoloysky told NCR that in her hometown of Karaganda an Orthodox priest said on TV the trip “was only for Catholics.”

The result?

Sokoloysky, a Catholic, pointed to several Orthodox friends. “They didn’t listen,” she shrugged.

Bishop Tomasz Peta of Astana said the Catholic side received no protest from the Orthodox concerning the visit.

“One representative told me not to worry, that our relations are very good,” Peta said. But in a telling gesture, Peta declined to name his source.

A Catholic observer told NCR that Orthodox bishops who find themselves sent to Kazakhstan are for the most part no longer moving up the career ladder. Hence they are less interested in scoring political points by picking fights.

John Paul II has long dreamed of a visit to Russia, and at his Mass in Astana, some faithful urged him on.

A large sign, in Russian, read: “Papa, when are you coming to Moscow?”

It’s a good bet Alexei and John Paul are both wondering the same thing.

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001