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Vatican: Pope Failed To Bridge Catholic-Orthodox Rift

The head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul, celebrates his 80th birthday today in an atmosphere of reflection. RFE/RL correspondent Anita Elash reports that despite his achievements in reaching out to Muslims and Jews, the pope has made less progress in forging relationships among Christians -- particularly between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Prague, 18 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Plans to celebrate the pope's birthday today are less ambitious than some in his circle wanted, but they will be festive just the same.

While everyone at the Vatican takes the day off, the pope plans to celebrate mass in St. Peter's Square in front of up to 50,000 people. Later on, he and 7,000 invited guests will attend a performance of Joseph Haydn's Oratorio, "The Creation."

But Catholic observers say that for Pope John Paul, it will be a bittersweet occasion -- one that looks back on a year of setbacks as well as extraordinary achievements.

Although he's just realized his dream of visiting the Holy Land, and made enormous strides in ending the church's estrangement with Muslims and Jews, the pope has had far less success in healing rifts closer to home. Observers say he is especially troubled by his failure to end the 900-year-old split with the Orthodox Church.

Edward Yarnold is a Jesuit priest and professor at Oxford University in England. Yarnold says that as the pope grows older and frailer, he feels more pressure to bridge the divide between Christian faiths.

"He realizes that it is a Christian duty to seek unity. He remembers such scriptural passages such as our lord praying that his followers might be one so that the world might believe. In other words, the idea that Christian disunity is a counter witness against Christ, is a block against the church's mission. Therefore he sees an enormous imperative to try to seek Christian unity."

Just a year ago, it seemed as if the pope had made some progress toward reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. Last May, he was warmly received in Romania, when he made the first ever papal visit to a country with an Orthodox majority. Relations were so good that he prayed side by side with Orthodox Patriarch Teoctist and even let him ride in the popemobile.

But there's been little progress since. During his visit to Georgia last autumn, Orthodox leaders told followers not to go to the pope's mass. Earlier this month, the Russian Orthodox Church refused to send any top officials to a special mass for Christian leaders in Rome. And although the pope has long hoped to visit Moscow, the Russian Orthodox patriarchy has yet to issue an invitation.

Gerard O'Connell reports on the pope's activities for the independent London-based Catholic weekly "The Tablet." He says part of the problem is that the Orthodox Church is worried that in seeking a rapprochement, Rome wants to start converting Orthodox followers to the Catholic faith. Another problem is that under the Communist regime, the Russian Orthodox Church did not develop modern ideas that might help it accept closer ties with Catholicism.

Even so, he says, it will be up to the Orthodox Church to make the next move.

"[The pope] is doing everything he can, I think, to force the dialogue. I think also at a certain point, some initiative will have to come from the Orthodox Church, and I think that will come in due course. But he will not force at this point. He cannot. It would be counterproductive and it would be unhelpful, and it's not what he wants to do."

O'Connell says it's unlikely the two sides will move any closer together this year. With millennium celebrations in full swing, the pope already has a full schedule and is unlikely to take any more trips abroad.

That leaves the question of whether the pope can reconcile with the Orthodox Church before the end of his papacy. O'Connell says many believe he has already accepted he is nearing the end of his term. He says that was especially clear during his trip last weekend to the pilgrimage city of Fatima in Portugal, when the pope left his most prized possession -- a ring he received from Polish Cardinal Wyszynski at the start of his papacy -- at the foot of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima.

"That particular symbolic act struck many people as like Simeon in the Bible when he saw Christ. He said, 'Now you can dismiss your servant, oh Lord.' Many people read it in this way. That he feels that he's ready to go when God wants him to go."

That does not mean, O'Connell says, that Pope John Paul expects to die soon. Rather, he says, some observers speculate that he will resign after millennium celebrations are over, to leave the job for a younger man.