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Central/East Europe: Pope John Paul Recognizes The East's Importance

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 15 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Early this month, Pope John Paul went on the 84th foreign trip of his pontificate, visiting the Central European country of Croatia.

His journeys make him by far the most widely traveled pontiff in history -- he has visited more than 130 countries -- and East Central Europe has been a frequent destination. A Pole and a Slav, John Paul has always had a special interest in, and attachment to, the region. Indeed, he saw in his election what he called a special "mandate from heaven (to) manifest and confirm" the vital role the eastern nations have played in the expansion of Christianity in Europe. Speaking in 1979, during his first papal visit to then still communist Poland, John Paul said that the gradual expansion of Christianity through the ancient lands of the East European Slavs had created the spiritual foundation for links between the East and the West of Europe. He specifically mentioned the dates of the Christianization of such national groups as the Croats, Slovenes, Bulgarians, Moravians, Slovaks, Czechs, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians.

Subsequently, in a symbolic act of recognition of the importance of the East in the expansion of Christianity throughout Europe, John Paul named St. Cyril and St. Methodius as Christian patrons of the continent. And he has consistently marked the dates of Christianization of the eastern nations by staging celebrations in Rome.

During his papacy, John Paul has criss-crossed East Central Europe many times, traveling from Sarajevo to the Baltic states and from western Czech towns to the eastern reaches of Poland and Hungary. He has been met and seen in the region by millions, who have heard him preach the Church's doctrine.

Many observers have credited the Pope with providing an inspiration for the political revolutions that swept away East Central European communist governments in the late 1980s and the early 1990s.

His triumphal visit to Poland in 1979 probably provided an added impetus to the already existing revolutionary trends, thus setting the stage for the eventual downfall of communism there. But his role in the collapse of communist governments elsewhere is less obvious, although his message might have had an influence.

John Paul himself told the Italian newspaper La Stampa in 1993 that during the visits to East Central Europe he "merely emphasized the value of traditional Christian principles of religious freedom and those of other freedoms that properly belong to any human being." And he credited the changes in the area to the popular acceptance of those principles.

Father Adam Boniecki, head of the international religious order of Maryan Fathers and a close observer of the Pope's activities, said that not just the number, but also the style of John Paul's travels are a distinguishing characteristic of his entire pontificate.

Boniecki, speaking recently to an RFE/RL correspondent in Rome:

John Paul was not simply visiting countries for talks with officials and leaders, Boniecki said. John Paul has considered those visits as "the normal way of exercising his pastoral mission."

The frequency of the Pope's travels may have started by accident, with his first trip, to Mexico, prompted by a tense situation there. But they quickly multiplied because of the Pope's conviction that visiting places and talking to people in person was the most effective way of communicating with them. Long before his papacy, John Paul had spent many years in pastoral work in Poland, gaining there the much valued experience of mass encounters.

Over the 20 years of his pontificate, millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe -- and millions in other parts of the globe -- have heard his words in person. Yet there are still people and whole countries in the East that the Pope has not yet reached but wants to visit. John Paul has long been reported eager to make "pilgrimages" to Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Central Asia and China. But there are no current prospects for those visits.

Even so, relations between the Vatican and those lands are expanding. Vatican envoys have been traveling throughout the eastern regions, meeting with and talking to heads of government and local clergy.

During recent months, the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, met in Kyiv with Ukraine's President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko.

In June, the Vatican named the Holy See's Apostolic Nuncio for Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The same month, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, The Vatican "Foreign Minister," met with Russia's Patriarch Alexy and with then foreign minister, now prime minister Yevgeny Primakov.

In September, the Holy See and Kazakhstan reached an agreement providing the Catholic Church with a legal basis to expand its religious, organizational and charitable activities in the country.

All these visits and meetings were reported to have taken place in an "atmosphere of great cordiality" and in a spirit of cooperation. But there has been no movement on the issue of papal visits.

The reason for that is the opposition of local religious bodies, primarily Orthodox Churches, to the Pope's visit to the areas in which they are dominant.

These Churches have apparently assumed that such visits would represent efforts by the Pope to strengthen the Catholic Church. They consider them potentially detrimental to their own institutional prestige and spiritual appeal.

It is unlikely that those concerns will disappear or that opposition to papal visits will weaken any time soon.

(This is the second feature in a three-part series marking the 20th year in the papacy of Pope John Paul.)