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No Insurmountable Obstacles to Catholic, Orthodox Unity

(CWR) -- Throughout his pontificate, John Paul II has made dramatic gestures in an effort to break down the barriers of Orthodox hostility toward the Catholic Church. He has made pilgrimages to traditionally Orthodox lands, apologized for the misdeeds of Catholics, and asked Orthodox theologians to join in a discussion of how the papacy can serve as the focus of Christian unity in the 21st century.

In November 2003 the Pope confirmed the accuracy of a rumor that had circulated around Rome for months: that he planned to make a new sort of gesture toward the Eastern churches, by returning the prized icon of Our Lady of Kazan to the Russian Orthodox Church. After several false starts, that plan was carried out late in August 2004. By restoring a beloved icon that had been missing for most of a century, the Holy Father obviously sought also to restore some of the goodwill that has been conspicuously lacking from the Moscow patriarchate's attitude toward Rome in recent years.

Whether the Pope's effort will prove successful in reviving productive ecumenical talks with the Russian Orthodox Church is not yet clear. But the papal gesture drew one prompt reaction from another important corner of the Orthodox world. Late in June, when he visited Rome to join in celebrating the patronal feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople asked Pope John Paul to consider returning another set of objects prized by the Orthodox: the relics of Ss. John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen.

Although both St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory Nazianzen were bishops of Constantinople, their relics have been in Rome for centuries. The relics of St. Gregory Nazianzen were brought to the Vatican during the 8th-century iconoclastic controversy, when the emperors outlawed the veneration of relics. Those of St. John Chrysostom were taken by Crusaders in the 13th century. The Orthodox Church had complained, over the centuries, that the relics being held by the Vatican were actually the property of the Constantinople See.

When the Pope acceded to that request, Patriarch Bartholomew I underlined the importance of the gesture by saying that he would fly back to Rome--making his second visit to the Vatican of the year--to accept the relics in person. After a few weeks of preparation, plans were set for an ecumenical ceremony in St. Peter's basilica on November 27, at which Pope John Paul II would turn over the relics to the Patriarch.


Ss. John Chrysostom (349-407) and Gregory Nazianzen (330-390) are both doctors of the Church, who gained fame for their defense of Christian doctrine in the face of the Arian heresy. Each saint also is claimed by Patriarch Bartholomew as a predecessor as Patriarch of Constantinople.

As he announced plans for the November ceremony, Bishop Brian Farrell, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, observed that the Pope's decision to return the relics was a "sign of the deep communion that exists between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church." He pointed out that similar gestures had been made by local churches. In 2001, the Diocese of Bari, Italy, presented relics of St. Nicholas to the Russian Orthodox Church. And in 2000, relics of St. Gregory the Illuminator, which had been kept in a monastery near Naples, were presented to Catholicos Karekin II, the leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The second visit of 2004 by Patriarch Bartholomew, the acknowledged "first among equals" among Orthodox patriarchs, would in itself be a sign of "growing rapprochement" between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, Bishop Farrell said. While there are important disagreements on matters of doctrine and ecclesiology that remain unresolved, he observed, there are increasingly strong personal bonds between the members of the Catholic and Orthodox hierarchies--the bodies that were estranged by the Great Schism of 1054.

Patriarch Bartholomew, who was elected as the 273rd Patriarch of Constantinople in October 1991, visited the Vatican for the first time in June 1995, when he joined in the historic inter-religious day of prayer for peace at Assisi. In 1994, Pope John Paul had reached out to the Orthodox leader by asking Bartholomew to write the meditations to be read during the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday in the Roman Coliseum. Thus began a series of visits and exchanges between Rome and Constantinople. Each year the Vatican sends a delegation of prelates to join in the Orthodox Patriarch's celebration of the feast of St. Andrew, the patron of Constantinople, on November 30; the Orthodox respond by sending a delegation to Rome--headed his year by the Patriarch himself--for the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29. During his private conversations with the Pontiff in June, Bartholomew I had invited John Paul to return the personal visit by making a trip to Constantinople, but the Pontiff's health made such a trip impossible.

In a private letter sent to Patriarch Bartholomew on September 8, the Pontiff referred to the relics as "the common patrimony of the faith which unites us, however imperfectly." Bartholomew responded by confirming that he would come to Rome to receive the relics, saying that the gesture would have "an immense significance" for his Orthodox see.

The Orthodox delegation arrived in Rome on November 26, and was greeted by a welcoming committee led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. During their stay in Rome the Orthodox clerics were lodged in the Vatican's St. Martha residence, and the Patriarch was the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by Cardinal Kasper's dicastery, with many officials of the Roman Curia in attendance. And before his departure, the Patriarch would again speak privately with the Roman Pontiff.

As the organizers finished the last-minute details of preparation, television crews set up their equipment in the Vatican basilica for live broadcasts that would bring the ecumenical ceremony to network audiences in Italy and in Greece.


During the Saturday-morning ceremony, Pope John Paul II underlined his desire for full Christian unity, while the leader of the Orthodox world promised "to continue the dialogue of truth in love" with the Catholic Church. As he handed over the precious relics, the Pope said the gesture was "a blessed opportunity to purify our wounded memories."

The Holy Father offered a prayer that "God will hasten the hour in which we will be able to live together, in the celebration of the holy Eucharist, full communion." As he received the relics--which had been enclosed in magnificent alabaster reliquaries--Patriarch Bartholomew I said that the Pope's gesture "confirms that there are not insurmountable problems in the Church of Christ."

The ceremony included a Liturgy of the Word, in which the readings included both Scriptural passages and selections from the two saints whose relics were being transferred. The Pope and the Patriarch then prayed together, and each made a short statement. (Because of the difficulty that John Paul II now encounters in speaking aloud, the Pope's statement was read by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, the deputy Secretary of State.)

During his address, Patriarch Bartholomew gently alluded to the historic complaints of the Orthodox Church, saying that by returning the relics the Pope was correcting "an ecclesiastical anomaly and injustice." He added that the Pope's gesture should be imitated by others who "arbitrarily hold and still retain treasures of the faith." He did not identify the objects of that statement, which could apply to governments in Eastern Europe, as well as to Catholic dioceses.

Two days after the ceremony, Patriarch Bartholomew stunned reporters by saying that taking possession of the relics was the "most important event" of his 13-year tenure as the Ecumenical Patriarch. He stressed that the Pope's willingness to return the relics to Constantinople was "a very important step toward full unity between our two churches," and that the gesture would be "very much appreciated by the ecumenical Patriarchate and by all of the Orthodox world." Patriarch Bartholomew told a Vatican Radio audience that he was "very moved and very happy" because of the "historic event, thanks to the goodwill of the Pope."

Cardinal Walter Kasper more modestly observed that the transfer of the relics was "a sign of our relations, which are much improved." He observed that it was also a sign of the "common heritage of faith from the first centuries of Christianity," since the two saints are equally venerated by the Orthodox and Catholic Church.

Just one small shadow of controversy marred the warmth of the transfer. Provoked by the repeated charges that the relics had been stolen from the Orthodox Church, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls informed reporters that the Pope was not making an "act of reparation" or a request for "forgiveness" by turning them over to Patriarch Bartholomew. The claims that Catholics had looted the relics were misleading, he insisted; in particular, the notion that the relics of St. Gregory Nazianzen had been "stolen" from the Patriarchate of Constantinople were, he argued, "historically inaccurate." Navarro-Valls pointed out that the remains of St. Gregory had been moved to Rome during the 8th century so that they could be saved from the iconoclastic persecution of that day.

Navarro-Valls did not recount the story of how the relics of St. John Chrysostom reached Rome, after the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. While acknowledging the "tragic events" that were involved in the movement of the relics, he explained that the Pope's decision to return the icons was an effort to go "beyond the controversies and difficulties of the past." (Pope John Paul had asked for pardon for the sacking of Constantinople on an earlier occasion: during his trip to Greece in May 2001. In his address to the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Christodoulos, the Pontiff said that it was "tragic" that Crusaders who set out to liberate the Holy Land engaged in the plunder of Constantinople.)


When the Patriarch returned home, an ecumenical assembly, including Turkish civil authorities and many Catholic bishops, gathered in St. George's Orthodox cathedral in Istanbul to welcome the relics. Buoyed by the enthusiasm generated by the Pope's gesture, large crowds attended the Divine Liturgy on November 30, marking the feast of St. Andrew.

"This was an act of reconciliation among the churches which is bound to have positive effects on ecumenical relations in the future," Father George Marovich, spokesman for the Catholic bishops' conference of Turkey, told the Fides news service. National media outlets gave ample coverage to the return of the relics, prompting a heartily emotional reaction from the small Christian minority community in Turkey.

The return of the relics came at a time when Turkey's Christians were already feeling a new sense of power and purpose, for different reasons. Turkey's bid for entry into the European Union has been met by probing questions about the state of religious freedom in the overwhelmingly Muslim country, and the government has responded by reaching out to Christian leaders--clearly hoping to elicit their support for the cause of entry into the European Union. During a meeting with Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July, the Catholic bishops of Turkey (representing the Latin, Armenian, Chaldean, and Syrian Catholic communities, all of which boast a small but steadfast following) had a rare chance to speak about the problems encountered by Catholics in Turkey, and also to make a request for official juridical status for the Catholic Church in Turkey--something the government has never previously considered.

The celebration of the relics' return, then, offered another occasion for solidarity among the Christians who make up just 0.6 percent of Turkey's population.


The Vatican officials who visited Istanbul for that November 30 celebration reported, on their return to Rome, that the Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople shared a desire that Pope John Paul had expressed to Patriarch Bartholomew in June and again in November. The Catholic and Orthodox officials agreed--at least in principle--to revive a joint Catholic-Orthodox theological commission that has been dormant since a meeting in Baltimore in July 2000.

The joint commission, established as the result of talks in November 1979 between Pope John Paul and the then-Patriarch Dimitrios I, had produced the "Balamund declaration" of 1993, in which the Orthodox churches accepted the existence of the Eastern Catholic communities, while the Holy See acknowledged that ecumenical progress should come through corporate reunion with the Orthodox churches rather than the recognition of new Eastern-rite Catholic communities. But the commission then reached an impasse over Orthodox complaints about "proselytism" by Catholics in traditionally Orthodox lands, and about Vatican support for the Eastern-rite Catholic churches.

But the Pope's latest gesture might have been enough to break that impasse, Vatican officials reported. The delegation from Rome, led by Cardinal Kasper, found that Orthodox officials were particularly cordial in their greetings this year. The Pope's gesture has been recognized as "a sign of friendship by the Catholic Church, and of our bond through the communion of saints," one prelate remarked. During their meetings in Istanbul, representatives of the Orthodox synod assured the Vatican delegates that they plan to respond promptly to the Pope's plea for a resumption of formal talks by the joint commission.

During the November 30 ceremony in the cathedral of St. George, when Cardinal Kasper had a chance to convey greetings from the Holy See, he emphasized the bonds between Rome and Constantinople. The German cardinal reminded Patriarch Bartholomew "how profound and significant were the events that we celebrated in St. Peter's basilica, just a few days ago, and which we continue to celebrate today." Cardinal Kasper added: "What unites us is much more than a human bond; it is a communion in the faith that John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen confessed and courageously proclaimed." While thanking God for that bond, the cardinal continued, "we must still reinforce our commitment to progress on the path to full communion." The deep spiritual bond between the two churches, he said, calls attention to the fact that the communion "is not complete."

Orthodox officials responded positively to that challenge, the Vatican envoys confirmed. The Orthodox synod confirmed a desire to resume formal theological talks, and the only remaining problems will be working out the details of a time, place, and agenda for the discussions.

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