Prague, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II may be about to fulfill a long-held ambition by making the first-ever visit by the head of the Catholic Church to a predominantly Orthodox country.
This month, both Romania and Ukraine have repeated earlier invitations, but this time conditions seem favorable for such visits to take place. And on 16 February Vatican officials announced that a papal visit to Armenia later this year is also being considered. The vast majority of the population of Armenia belongs, at least nominally, to the Armenian Apostolic Church, a member of the Oriental family of Eastern Christian Churches.
The Romanian visit may well take place soon. The Pope would never visit a country without invitations from both the government and the dominant religious community, and in the case of Romania, the long-standing government invitation (first extended by former President Ion Iliescu in 1991) has now been complemented by one from the Romanian Orthodox Church, to which 80 percent of the 22 million-strong population belongs, at least nominally.
"Given the ecumenical international relations between the Romanian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church and a recent letter addressed by the Pope to the patriarch saying he wishes to come soon to Romania, the synod considers that Patriarch Teoctist can address the invitation," a 4 February statement declared.
The patriarch subsequently issued the invitation, which the Vatican's chief spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope had accepted. Navarro-Valls added that "the date and agenda of the trip have not yet been defined," but Italian media reports and Romania's ambassador to the Vatican suggested it will take place in early May. Ambassador Teodor Baconsky told Romanian Radio that the visit will last two days and be confined to Bucharest, adding that the Pope will meet President Emil Constantinescu and Patriarch Teoctist and hold an ecumenical service and a Roman Catholic mass.
Whether such a circumscribed visit would satisfy the Pope remains to be seen. Much of his flock in Romania is to be found in Transylvania, the home of the Eastern-rite Catholic Church. Many of the Latin-rite Catholics, especially the ethnic Hungarians and Germans, also live in Transylvania.
Although arguments over ownership of some 2,000 former Catholic churches handed to the Orthodox after 1948 have largely remained unresolved, the improved atmosphere over the past year has led to a serious attempt on either side to resolve the squabbles over property.
The invitation to Ukraine is likely to be more problematic, in terms of both agenda and scheduling. The 10 February announcement that President Leonid Kuchma had issued an invitation, personally handed to the Pope by Prime Minister Valery Pustovoytenko on a recent visit, leaves unanswered the question of how the Ukrainian Orthodox will respond.
With the Orthodox forming the vast majority of the population outside western Ukraine (the heartland of the 5 million-strong Eastern-rite Catholic Church), the Pope will have to tread warily.
Moreover, matters are complicated by the bitter divisions within the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which has split into three main factions.
The Vatican follows the lead of the rest of the Orthodox world in recognizing the Ukrainian Church loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate (headed by Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan) as the canonical Orthodox Church.
And another complicating factor are upcoming elections: since the Pope would not visit a country ahead of such vote, for fear of seeming to endorse any candidates, so any visit to Ukraine will have to be fitted in after presidential elections in October and November but before the end of the year, as the Vatican has declared 2000 a jubilee year during which the Pope will not maintain his customary heavy travel schedule.
The Pope has long wanted to seek to reconcile the two halves of historical Christianity. His fourth foreign pilgrimage as Pope, in November 1979, had been to Istanbul to visit Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios. His 1985 encyclical Slavorum Apostoli (Apostles of the Slavs) praised the two Slavic saints Cyril and Methodius and urged a return to the undivided European Church, which had existed before the 1054 schism.
In a 1985 speech, the Pope had declared: "The Church must learn to breathe again with its two lungs--the Eastern one and the Western one."
But the existence of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches-- which retain Orthodox-style liturgy while acknowledging the jurisdiction of the Pope--has long been a source of tension between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The recent reemergence of Eastern-rite Catholic Churches that had been banned under communism annoyed the Orthodox Churches, which regard them as traitors to Orthodoxy, and fueled accusations of Vatican "proselytism" in the Orthodox world.
Partly in response to such accusations, relations between the Orthodox Churches and the Vatican have cooled. The head of the largest Orthodox Church, Patriarch Aleksii II of Moscow and All-Russia, has several times torpedoed projected meetings with Pope John Paul, although the most senior Orthodox hierarch, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, has continued to hold meetings with the Pontiff.
John Paul II has made numerous pilgrimages to countries where Catholics are in a minority and has even visited states such as Muslim Morocco and Lutheran Finland, where Catholics do not even make up 1 percent of the population. But with Orthodox passions running against the Vatican, a papal visit to an Orthodox country would have been unthinkable until recently.
The influence of the Orthodox Churches over the governments in their countries had in effect erected a new Iron Curtain. This year appears to offer the best hope yet for Pope John Paul II to push back that curtain.
(The author writes on religious affairs in Eastern Europe).