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Issue Date:  February 24, 2006

mapA papal visit to Serbia is historic opportunity


A frequent question put to me during my December visit to Serbia was related to the rumor that Pope Benedict XVI would visit Serbia. This rumor was rooted in the fact that in 2005 two senior leaders of the country visited with Pope Benedict and invited him to visit Serbia.

It was Pope John Paul II who initiated the dialogue with the world’s leading Christian Orthodox communities in Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Greece. Some Vatican officials felt that the time and resources devoted to relations with the Orthodox Christians were excessive. Would this push for dialogue and reconciliation with the Orthodox be continued by Pope Benedict?

It took several months for a response to become clear from the new pontiff. It is now known that Pope Benedict places a high priority on two papal visits; first to Serbia and then to Russia.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches split in 1056. The breakup was bitter and intermingled with the politics of that era. Now, over 1,000 years later, Orthodox Christians number around 250 million and are heavily concentrated in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Russia.

Serbia and Montenegro, a state union in Southeast Europe, in the Balkan peninsula, has more than 8 million people with the overwhelming majority of people being Orthodox Christians. Another million Orthodox Serbs are scattered in the neighboring countries of the Balkans.

The modern Serbian Orthodox church was founded in the province of Kosovo and Metohija in the 11th century and traces its roots back to 860. The culture of the church is deeply rooted in the struggle against the Ottoman Turks. The Serbian Orthodox church, like the other Orthodox communities, continues the sacramental traditions of the early Christians. Its Holy Orders are recognized by the Roman Catholic church.

However, relations with the Roman Catholic church and the Vatican became intertwined with disputes with neighboring Croatia, an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Efforts by Pope John Paul II to expand his dialogue with the Orthodox peoples to include Serbia were not successful. There were too many obstacles.

The question now is: Will there be a favorable response to the indication from Pope Benedict that he would like to visit Serbia and Montenegro?

Both Svetozar Marovi´c, president of Serbia and Montenegro, and Boris Tadi´c, president of Serbia, were at the Vatican in 2005 to extend an invitation to Pope Benedict.

The big question is Patriarch Pavle. He governs the Orthodox church as the first among equals. He consequently needs to consult with his fellow bishops.

I met with two of the Serbian Orthodox church leaders who expressed optimism about the prospects for a papal visit. Several bishops, on the other hand, still seem to be reluctant.

Only Patriarch Pavle, now 91 and in failing health, can make the final determination about the Serbian Orthodox church formally inviting Pope Benedict to visit Serbia. He is the archbishop of Pec, metropolitan of Belgrade-Karlovac, the Serbian patriarch. I met with him in a previous visit and was very impressed with his holiness.

I left Serbia in mid-December with a prayer and a hope that a papal visit will take place. Yes, there have been some bad bumps in the past 100 years between the Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox faith traditions, but a papal visit would ease the alienation between the two churches and pave the way for a more positive relationship, one where the churches could work out questions on Communion and the Confiteor and how they might face the common problems of tyranny and materialism.

The situation reminds me of the situation in the early 1990s when, as the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, I was under instructions to urge Pope John Paul II to formally recognize the state of Israel. The Vatican curia would always call my attention to the hundreds of details that needed to be resolved before recognition could be considered.

One day late in 1993, John Paul II swept away those “details” and, in a stroke of the pen, recognized the state of Israel. Some of the details of the past between Israel and the Vatican have still not been resolved, but nonetheless a significant improvement in Jewish-Catholic relations followed the recognition.

The sweep of bringing Christians together for the greater good will be served if in 2006 the world will witness an embrace between the Roman Catholic and the Serbian Orthodox church in Serbia. It would be the start of an even more significant reconciliation: a papal visit to Russia.

Thomas Patrick Melady was U.S. ambassador to the Vatican 1989-93.

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006

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