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 CNS Story:

Pope's missionary initiatives sometimes blocked his ecumenical dreams

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Throughout his more than 26-year pontificate, Pope John Paul II worked hard to advance Christian unity in the East and West, breaking down barriers with a combination of personal gestures and official dialogue.

But in the end, the pope found that his own missionary initiatives sometimes got in the way of his ecumenical dreams.

For the Polish-born pontiff, the failure to travel to Moscow and greet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II was one of the deepest disappointments of his papacy. Ironically, it was the resurgence of small Catholic communities after the fall of Soviet communism that pushed the trip into the "impossible" category.

The Russian Orthodox hierarchy resented what it called aggressive Catholic evangelization in traditionally Orthodox lands. When the pope created four new dioceses for Russia in 2002, the door to Moscow swung shut for Pope John Paul.

The tensions between ecumenism and evangelization, and between dialogue and doctrine, ran through his pontificate from beginning to end.

The pope called Christian unity a pastoral priority and said the church was committed "irrevocably to following the path of the ecumenical venture." He gave the ecumenical movement a new impetus with an encyclical in which he asked other churches how the papacy could better serve a reunited Christianity.

Yet other Vatican documents from the same period emphasized the limits of dialogue on ecumenical questions like papal primacy, apostolic succession and even use of terms like "sister churches." Dialogue also stalled over such issues as the Anglican decision in 1994 to ordain women priests.

In his final years, the pope traveled to several predominantly Orthodox countries of the East, including Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia and Georgia. A frail figure on these last journeys, he won the hearts of many Orthodox believers through his determination to witness the faith and build ecumenical bridges. In former Soviet countries, he emphasized the "ecumenism of martyrdom" and said the heroic faith of all Christians under communism was a resource for the future.

His historic 24-hour pilgrimage to Greece in 2001 overcame Orthodox opposition and public protests, largely through a dramatic papal apology for the wrongs of the past -- including the sack of Constantinople by Western Christians during the Crusades.

But his visit to Ukraine the same year raised new ecumenical tensions with the Russian Orthodox Church, despite the pope's call for mutual forgiveness and a new chapter of dialogue.

The first major ecumenical act of Pope John Paul's papacy was his November 1979 visit to Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey. At that meeting, they inaugurated an international Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue.

In a joint declaration in 1987 Pope John Paul and Patriarch Dimitrios repudiated all forms of proselytism of Catholics by Orthodox or Orthodox by Catholics.

At Orthodox urging, the Catholic Church rejected "uniatism" -- the uniting of a segment of an Orthodox Church with Rome -- as a policy for future Catholic-Orthodox union, but at the same time it affirmed the authenticity of Eastern Catholic churches formed in the past under such a model.

Those questions all came to the fore after the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991, as Eastern Catholic communities regained legal status throughout the former Soviet empire.

In a 1992 document on post-communist Russia, the Vatican called for ecumenism in Catholic mission activity there, asking Catholic authorities to avoid competition with the Orthodox and to assist in the development of Orthodox pastoral initiatives. But despite Vatican assurances, local Orthodox communities viewed the Catholic resurgence as an attempt to proselytize among their faithful.

In 2002, when the pope created four new dioceses in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church froze dialogue with the Vatican and accused the Vatican of expansionism into what the Orthodox regard as their "canonical territory." In months that followed, the Russian government expelled several Catholic priests and one bishop, adding a diplomatic dispute to the ecumenical crisis.

Whenever and wherever doctrinally possible, Pope John Paul encouraged joint Christian prayer and, starting in 1994, he invited Orthodox and Protestant clergy and theologians to write the meditations for his Good Friday Way of the Cross service in Rome's Colosseum.

He used the dawning of the third millennium of Christianity to stoke the twin fires of spiritual renewal and ecumenism -- convinced, in the words of his 1995 encyclical, that "the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer." That encyclical, titled "Ut Unum Sint" ("That All May Be One"), became a topic of ecumenical dialogues around the world in the years that followed.

In it the pope acknowledged that while Catholics view the bishop of Rome as "visible sign and guarantor of unity," the notion of that papal role for the universal church "constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians." He asked theologians and leaders of other churches to help him "find a way of exercising the primacy" that could make it a ministry of unity to all Christians.

In 1993 the church's first revised ecumenical directory in nearly a quarter century greatly expanded the principles and applications of Catholic ecumenical relations.

Pope John Paul met with heads of the ancient churches of the East, affirming Christological agreements with all the Oriental Orthodox churches and signing landmark declarations in 1994 with Patriarch Dinkha IV, head of the Assyrian Church of the East, and in 1996 with Catholicos Karekin I of Etchmiadzin, head of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

In relations with the churches of the Reformation, it was at the pope's invitation that Catholic and Lutheran theologians developed an official joint declaration that they share the same essential belief in justification by faith -- the core doctrinal dispute behind the Reformation. The declaration was signed by officials of both churches in 1999.

Pope John Paul said he was particularly moved at Masses during his 1989 visit to Scandinavian countries when Lutheran bishops approached him for a blessing at Communion time, symbolizing their desire for the day when Catholics and Lutherans could share the same Eucharist. But in an encyclical on the Eucharist in 2003, the pope said a shared Eucharist among Christian churches was not possible until communion in the bonds of faith, sacraments and church governance were "fully re-established." These and other statements disappointed those who had hoped for faster progress on sacramental unity.

When the pope went to England in 1982, he and Anglican Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury announced the formation of the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. The final report of the first international commission -- published in 1982 and covering Catholic-Anglican agreed statements on Eucharist, ministry and authority -- received a cool formal response from the Vatican in 1991, but clarifications won Vatican approval three years later.

The pope affirmed the work of the World Council of Churches with his 1984 trip to its headquarters in Geneva. Almost every one of his 104 trips to other nations featured meetings with leaders of other Christian churches.

The pope's emphasis on ecumenism was far from accidental. In his own words, "The bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the churches. ... He is the first servant of unity."

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Contributing to this story was Jerry Filteau in Washington.


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