So much has been said about the accomplishments of Pope John Paul II that I felt it useful to comment on one initiative about which he felt very strongly but which did not bear fruit, his effort to achieve unity with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The official biographer of the Pope, George Weigel (who was an NBC commentator for the Papal Funeral), told me years ago when he regularly traveled between Washington and Rome that John Paul II was "virtually obsessed with trying to achieve unity with the Orthodox."
Coming from an Eastern European country, the Pope was well acquainted with the Orthodox. He had a deep and abiding respect for their liturgical practices as well as their general adherence to basic doctrines, which the Church has held since apostolic times. He once asked the Melkite Patriarch, Maximos V Hakim, how the Western Church could recover the sense of the sacred, which had been lost in the West but had been retained in the East. The Patriarch told him it was a mistake to have the altar facing the people. The Pope's closest advisor, Cardinal Ratzinger, recently wrote a book saying the same thing.
After the Holy Spirit appeared to the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire on the Feast of Pentecost each Apostle set out in a different direction of the known world. St. Paul, who was not an original Apostle, had persecuted Christians zealously. When he was the pagan Saul, God knocked him off of his horse and warned him that if he wanted to serve Him he must serve the Christian Faith. Saul then was converted and became the Apostle who wrote the letters included in the New Testament Canon. St. Paul's trips are well recorded. Traditions state that some Apostles traveled to China and India. Because there is no written record of travels taken by most Apostles, we will never know if these traditions are true or were composed by pious Christians eager to confer legitimacy on their communities.
The Church was persecuted in its early years. The most pervasive persecutions were under the Emperor Diocletian, whose goal was to wipe Christianity from the face of the earth. The Emperor's plan did not succeed completely because Christians were driven underground, where they lived and worshipped in caves, now called the Catacombs. The Emperor Constantine later declared Christianity legal and the state religion, after having a vision of a blazing cross imprinted with the words, "By this sign thou shalt conquer." Constantine was going to fight the most critical battle of his career for the empire. He adopted the cross as a symbol for his troops and he won. The Church grew around this Christian empire in the East and West. Based on liturgical teaching, Western Christians regularly knelt and genuflected because that was the highest honor to convey to royalty, and because Christ was King. Eastern Rite Christians regularly stood because standing was the proper way to show respect to royalty. More and more the Eastern and Western Churches developed separately but always in communion with one another.
During the latter part of the first Millennium the Catholic Church Hierarchy began disagreeing about rites. The East and West no longer understood one another. In 1054 A.D. the Pope in the West and the Patriarch of Constantinople in the East pronounced mutual anathemas. The Church officially had split. Through the schism, the Roman Catholic Church was established in the West and the Orthodox Churches in the East. They have remained split. Several attempts to reconcile them have resulted in the creation of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Some Orthodox returned to Communion with Rome in Carpatho, Russia, Ukraine and the Middle East, especially Syria and Lebanon. They returned because of the Greek Catholic Churches. That complicated the situation even further. The Orthodox, rather than regarding their Eastern Catholic counterparts as blood brothers with whom to be reconciled, treated Eastern Catholics as the problem, not the solution.
The Pope had many problems dealing with the Orthodox. First, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, where the Pope can speak for the Church, the Orthodox Church consists of many ethnic churches. There is no single authority with whom the Pope could discuss unity. The Patriarch of Constantinople is supposed to be "the first among equals" in the Orthodox Church. But when the Greek Church warmed up to the Pope's initiatives the Russian Church said no, never, not ever. In fact, as traveled as this Pope was, he really wanted to visit Russia, but the Russian Patriarch refused him. Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a rather fervent Orthodox Christian, said upon several occasions that as far as he was concerned the Pope would be welcome to visit Russia. He would hardly make that pronouncement when his Patriarch would contradict him and make it clear that John Paul was indeed not welcome in Russia.
I was told by one Vatican official who dealt with these issues that the Patriarch sent a delegation to Vatican City which told the Pope that if he would shut down all of the Roman Catholic Churches in Russia the Patriarch then would consider inviting him to Moscow. (Before the revolution there were hundreds of thousands of so-called Volga Catholics who had been imported from Germany and elsewhere to help Russia develop and who had opened many churches in cities ranging from those along the Volga River all the way to Vladivostok.) After all, the Orthodox delegation argued, Roman Catholics could get everything they needed by becoming Orthodox. The Pope reportedly did not blink an eye. He said to the Russian delegation "and in the United States, most Catholics are Roman Catholics. If I shut down all of the Roman Catholic Churches in Russia, are you willing to shut down all of the Orthodox Churches in the United States? After all, Orthodox Christian can get everything they need from Roman Catholic Churches." Reportedly the Russian delegation left shortly thereafter. The Cardinal who told me that story is dead now but he was a very active and knowledgeable Prince of the Church, even after his retirement. So I have no reason to believe it isn't true.
While the Roman Catholics have a tolerable relationship with the Orthodox Churches, the Eastern Catholic Churches which were seen chanting after the Pope's Funeral Mass (they sang in Greek, "Christ is Risen from the Dead, trampling down death by death and giving life to those who are in the tombs") have a far more difficult time with the Orthodox. While there are Roman Catholic parishes springing up all over Russia, I know of only one Eastern Catholic Church in Siberia, where the hold of the Central Government is the least effective. The Western part of the Ukraine is dominated by Eastern Catholics. It was they who pushed for the Orange Revolution. In the east the Orthodox Church predominates. A threshold problem is that there are no less than three Orthodox jurisdictions, with two separate Patriarchs, in Kiev and a third, the Russian Patriarch, in Moscow. With whom does Rome negotiate?
One Cardinal whom I met in Rome told me that John Paul II badly wanted those Eastern Bishops added to the roster of his own Bishops because he considered them a counterweight to the American and Canadian Bishops whom he regarded as much too liberal.
Unity with the Orthodox was probably the only main initiative the late Pope took which did not succeed. George Weigel quoted the Pope as saying he even would be willing to give up "jurisdiction." The Pope names Bishops of not only the Roman Catholic Church but of the Eastern Catholic Churches as well. That has been deeply resented by the Orthodox who say, "See what will happen to us if we enter into communion with Rome." To attain unity the Pope was willing to return to the ancient practice, still followed by the Orthodox, in which Synods of Bishops elect new Bishops. The Pope only would be informed of the decision. That is the way the Melkite Patriarch was elected a few years ago. He was selected by the Synod of Bishops, who then notified Rome of his appointment. The Patriarch wrote a letter saying he desired to be in communion with Rome, and Rome answered saying it wished to be in communion with the Melkite Church. That was it. I am, as full disclosure should note, a Melkite Greek Catholic. I have seen those documents.
How much weight John Paul II's successor will give to unity with the Orthodox remains to be seen. If the new Pope comes from Africa or Latin America he may put little or no weight on this question. Indeed the Orthodox may find that John Paul II was their best opportunity for unity; when they had the chance they refused to take it. History rarely offers a second chance.
Paul M. Weyrich is founder of the Heritage Institute.
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