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May 7 The Pope visits Romania, building bridges with the Orthodox

At the turn of the Millennium the first Slavic Pope, John Paul II made big steps towards reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. This covers his visit to Romania which started today in 1999. It was the first visit of a Pope to a predominantly orthodox country since the Great Schism of 1054.


In a public statement the Pope said ‘The second millennium of Christian history began with a painful wounding of the unity of the Church; the end of this millennium has seen a real commitment to restoring Christian unity." He was invited to the country by Patriarch Teoctist of the Romanian Orthodox Church. Just before the dawn of the new Millennium, it was the Pope’s first small step toward achieving his dream of full reconciliation between East and West. Romania’s population is 87 percent Orthodox Christian. On his arrival, the Patriarch and the President of Romania, greeted the pope. To have a such a globally recognised figure visit was also in their interest, Romania was seeking closer ties to the West at the time, and membership in NATO and the European Union. The visit was a step on the path of joining the two bodies a few years later. The Patriarch won widespread praise for issuing the historic invitation, which was welcome praise, as he had been criticized for collaborating with the totalitarian government of Nicolae Ceausescu during the Communist era.

Patriarch Teoctist was born the 10th child in a poor farming family of 11 children. That humble background meant that he was widely seen to be more in touch with the common people that the intelligentsia, but in the dramatically changing world following the collapse of Communism he had to tread a thin diplomatic line. Appointed as head of the church in 1986, he resigned after Mr. Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989. He entered a monastery in January 1990 and then returned to head the church three months later. Choosing not to condemn Mr. Ceausescu’s destruction of Orthodox churches in Bucharest, he expressed regrets after the Communist system collapsed. He also opposed the investigation of clerics who were said to have collaborated with the Securitate secret police under Communist rule.

In an important witness, the Pope and the Patriarch each attended a worship service conducted by the other (an Orthodox Liturgy and a Catholic Mass, respectively). A crowd of hundreds of thousands of people turned up to attend the worship services, which were held in the open air. The Pope told the crowd, "I am here among you pushed only by the desire of authentic unity. Not long ago it was unthinkable that the bishop of Rome could visit his brothers and sisters in the faith who live in Romania. Today, after a long winter of suffering and persecution, we can finally exchange the kiss of peace and together praise the Lord." A large part of Romania's Orthodox population has shown itself warm to the idea of Christian reunification.

Throughout the long span of history, the contact between the Holy See and many Christians of the East had never totally ceased, but communion had been interrupted since the Schism. With the election of the first Slavic Pope, the history of conflict in Central Europe was a complex part of John Paul II's personal cultural heritage which made him determined to attempt to overcome difficulties, given that relatively speaking the Holy See and the non-Catholic Eastern Churches were close in many points of faith. The Patriarch praised the visit’s importance but also was realistic about its limits. “We hope this visit will deepen and reinforce our efforts of dialogue,” he said during the visit. “This moment represents one effort among others.”

These efforts with the Orthodox community continued two years later, when John Paul became the first pope to visit Greece in over a thousand years. After a private 30-minute meeting, with Archbishop Christodoulos, the two spoke publicly on a spot where Saint Paul had once preached to Athenian Christians. Christodoulos sternly read a list of "13 offences" of the Catholic Church against the Eastern Orthodox Church since the Great Schism, including the pillaging of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204 ( see podcast of Mar 25) He bemoaned the lack of apology from the Catholic Church, saying "Until now, there has not been heard a single request for pardon" for the "maniacal crusaders of the 13th century". The pope responded by saying "For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us forgiveness", to which the Orthodox leader immediately applauded. The two leaders then said the Lord's Prayer together, breaking an Orthodox taboo against praying with Catholics.


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