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VATICAN LETTER Aug-25-2006 (610 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Photographs and memories: Moving a piece of ecumenical history

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A piece of ecumenical history is making a move this summer.

After more than 40 years at its labyrinthine office on Via dell'Erba, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Christian Unity is relocating toward the Tiber River, a few hundred yards farther down the road from Vatican City State.

Throughout August, curious tourists watched as movers stacked box loads of documents marked "presidente" and "segretario" on the sidewalk leading to St. Peter's Square.

Shopping carts borrowed from the Vatican supermarket were loaded with books and files and wheeled to moving vans. Inside the old office, giant rolls of bubble wrap stood at the ready, and walls bore the ghost images of photographs and icons removed for the transfer.

Moving an entire office is unusual at the Vatican, where turf is generally protected down to the last square centimeter. But church officials wanted the council's sprawling third-floor space for a unique project: miniapartments for retired apostolic nuncios.

After bouncing around the world, the nuncios often have no place to call home when they leave the diplomatic corps. Many end up living a rather isolated existence at the Vatican's Domus Sanctae Marthae, a type of clerical hotel.

The new quarters, after remodeling, will provide living space, a common kitchen and dining area, and a community life, Vatican sources said.

The Christian unity council was offered space in another building that the Vatican purchased a few years ago. Packing began in earnest during August, and the 23-person staff was expected to be moved in and ready for business by early September.

"It's goodbye to an era," Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the council, said as he stood amid the packing crates and disassembled computers.

The era began in 1960, when Blessed Pope John XXIII created the Secretariat for Christian Unity as part of the preparations for the Second Vatican Council. By 1963, it had pretty much taken its present form, with two sections dealing with Eastern and Western ecumenical affairs. In 1974 the secretariat added a subcommission for relations with Jews. It was renamed a council in 1988.

From the beginning, the office at Via dell'Erba was an ecumenical crossroads. Symposiums in what was once a state-of-the-art conference room brought together experts from various churches. Plenary sessions of the council's approximately 35 cardinal and bishop members mapped out ecumenical strategies.

Official delegations from other churches came to visit the council's offices and often left behind gifts.

"They all passed through here, patriarchs and heads of churches, Reformed and Orthodox," said Paola Fabrizi, who has worked at the council since 1969.

Like many at the council, Fabrizi is ambivalent about the move.

"Naturally, there's an emotional attachment to these offices, because they are a reminder of all that's been accomplished. But the new office is also beautiful, and it's good to turn the page," she said.

Some of the most precious memories were captured in photos that have long hung on the walls of the council's office: sessions of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI's historic meeting with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, and Pope John Paul II seated with ecumenical leaders in Assisi, Italy.

They'll all be dusted off and placed in the new locale, which has a better display area.

As workers wrapped up the last of the furniture, still hanging on the wall of the old conference room was a gilded icon showing the embrace of Sts. Peter and Andrew -- the patron saints of the Western and Eastern churches. It was a gift of Patriarch Athenagoras to Pope Paul.

"Don't worry, we're taking that with us," said Fabrizi.


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