Those words were reportedly uttered to Pope John Paul II by a Greek Orthodox leader in Rome in 1982. They refer to the Orthodox rejection of the Roman Catholic claim of papal authority and infallibility. Unlike any pope before him, John Paul, the first Slavic pope, worked tirelessly to reunite Catholicism with the Orthodox churches bordering his native Poland.
But papal authority, or “Rome’s primacy” -- as well as politics and identity, particularly in Russia and Ukraine -- continues to divide the main branches of Christianity nearly 1,000 years after their “Great Schism.”
“The primacy of Rome is undoubtedly [a key problem],” says Monsignor Romano Scalfi, an Italian priest who for half a century has worked to bridge the Catholic-Orthodox divide. “However, the pope said he was willing to negotiate on the modalities in which the primate is exercised. Not much is said against the primacy [of Rome], and that’s because the Orthodox Church already acknowledges a certain ‘inter paris’ [among equals] primacy. After all, before the Schism in 1054, the primacy of the pope was more or less recognized, even in the East.”
The pope made getting back to that pre-Schism state a goal in his 1995 encyclical “Ut unum sint” ("On Christian Unity”).
But even amid cooperation with some Orthodox leaders, such as Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, the pope met continuously with suspicion and distrust among the Eastern churches.
The leader of Russia's Orthodox Church -- Patriarch Aleksii -- repeatedly refused to meet the pope or allow him to visit Russia. Aleksii did not attend today's funeral, instead sending three representatives led by Metropolitan Kirill, head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate.
Bartholomew, after visiting with pope at the Vatican in June 2004, said in a statement that despite ecumenical progress, “papal primacy remains a particular concern” for Orthodoxy.
The situations in Ukraine and Russia -- where the Catholic-Orthodox divide also carries great political significance -- drive that point home.
In Ukraine, some 5 million so-called Greek Catholics or “Uniates” follow Orthodox rites yet pledge their allegiance to the pope. Orthodox leaders fear that through the Uniates, Rome has a model for making the Orthodox churches obedient to the Vatican.
In a historic visit to western Ukraine or Galicia in 2001, the pope made an emotional appeal to Uniates, long associated with the drive for a Ukraine independent of Moscow. And he mentioned Cardinal Slipyj, a historic leader of the Uniates who spent 17 years in a Soviet gulag.
"This Galician soil, which in the course of history saw the development of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, in the words of the unforgettable Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, was covered by a mountain of corpses and rivers of blood," Pope John Paul said.
But rather than improve relations with the Orthodox, the pope’s Ukrainian trip seemed only to deepen their fears of a Catholic invasion.
Those fears would seem to encompass the political sphere, as well.
Last year, the Russian Orthodox Church strongly favored pro-Moscow candidate Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine’s disputed presidential elections won by Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko, who had strong backing from Ukrainian Catholics and Uniates.
In Belarus -- which, like Russia, this pope never visited -- President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has strongly backed the Russian Orthodox Church’s stake as the country’s main religion. There have also been attacks on Catholic and Uniate churches there.
Lukashenka even campaigned alongside Orthodox leaders before his reelection in 2001.
In Russia, Aleksii has accused the Vatican of seeking to exploit the Orthodox Church’s devastation under communism to win converts to Catholicism.
Yet statistics suggest the number of Catholics in Russia -- about 600,000 out of a population of 150 million -- has fallen in recent years. Meanwhile, converts to Protestant religions are soaring, while a recent poll said that only 1 percent of Russians attend Orthodox services.
Italian priest Scalfi, the founder of a Milan-based magazine on Orthodoxy called “La Nuova Europa,” says he doesn’t understand why Catholics are treated so harshly in Russia while Orthodox leaders seem to turn a blind eye to the spread of Protestantism.
“For us, what’s hard to explain is the nonchalance, as it were, of the Russian Orthodox Church toward Protestantism, which is expanding like no one could have predicted," Scalfi said. "That is, more than 9,000 communities. Since the Orthodox Church has just 11,000 parishes, you can imagine [what will happen] if this [trend] continues.”
In a recent book called “You Are Peter,” Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement of France argues that Catholicism and Orthodoxy can reunite even by accepting a form of primacy for the Roman pontiff. Clement says this would result in a “creative tension” between the two Christian branches that would not give Rome absolute authority.
But concerns over politics and identity seem as much a part of the question as do issues of religious authority. Orthodoxy has long been closely aligned with political authority -- in Moscow and elsewhere.
Early last year in Moscow, Patriarch Aleksii himself called for greater unity of Orthodox countries to fend off challenges to their traditions.
“The challenges of time naturally push nations and states -- [through] culture, world outlook, and spiritual position -- to unite," Aleksii said. "Integration trends are on the way in Europe. Muslim states seek to consolidate their [position] on the world stage. Is it possible, under such conditions, for countries with age-old Orthodox traditions and culture to remain disconnected [and] on the sidelines.”
John Paul II’s opening to the East was unlike that of any other pope. He visited many Orthodox countries, including Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine.
The pope dreamed of unity. But what he achieved was a dialogue that has only just begun.
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