VATICAN CITY — The naming of new cardinals only happens every few years, which is for the best: It brings out the worst in ecclesiastical circles.

The months before the announcement are rife with speculation, gossip and unseemly murmuring about who is up, down or out. And when the day itself comes, it usually happens that

all the sound and fury signified nothing — or at least very little. Popes tend to be rather predictable in their choices; the true surprise choice is a rarity.

But in this month's consistory for new cardinals, there is a real surprise that signifies something very important indeed. Actually the surprise is twofold — the names of the two cardinals named in pectore (secretly) in the consistory of 1998 have been revealed.

From time to time the Pope names a cardinal but reserves that name to himself (holding it, literally, in his breast). Even the new cardinal is not informed, and until his name is published, he may assume neither the privileges nor the duties of a cardinal. Pope John Paul did this once before, in 1979, when he named Shanghai Bishop Ignatius Gong Pin-mei a cardinal in pectore.

An in pectore nomination is usually done when the elevation might place the new cardinal in danger of persecution. This is not an idle concern. Pope Paul III named Bishop John Fisher a cardinal in the spring of 1535, hoping that the new dignity might persuade King Henry VIII to release the future saint from the Tower of London. Henry responded by cutting off his head. Bishop Gong Pin-mei likewise suffered imprisonment, at the hands of the Chinese communists, but his nomination was kept secret. It was not considered safe to reveal his name until 1991, by which time he had been exiled to the United States.

So when John Paul named two cardinals in pectore in 1998, speculation was that they might also be from China, or another country where Catholics were under persecution.

The ecclesiastical gossips, of course, had a field day. The Vatican press corps was true to form, opting for ill-founded rumor rather than simple common sense. The idea was widely bruited that John Paul had named his then “chief of staff” Giovanni Battista Re (now cardinal-designate and prefect of the Congregation for Bishops) in pectore, as if the exigencies of configuring the Roman Curia would warrant recourse to measures previously reserved for dealing with the Chinese politburo.

Catholic Rebirth in Russia

Last month's revelation of the two names therefore took everyone by surprise: Archbishop Janis Pujats of Riga (Latvia) and the Latin-rite archbishop of Lviv (Ukraine), Marian Jaworski. At the same time, the Holy Father named Lubomyr Husar, the newly elected Eastern-rite archbishop of Lviv, a cardinal, but in the normal fashion.

Since the 1991 implosion of the Soviet Union, both Latvia and Ukraine have been independent republics, no longer part of the communist empire. So why the caution in naming the prelates in pectore in 1998? Therein lies the significance of this cardinalatial surprise.

John Paul resorted to the in pectore nominations not out of concern for the secular authorities, but out of sensitivity to the reaction of fellow Christians, namely the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe.

By 1998, so poor were the relations between the renascent Catholic churches in the former Soviet republics and the Orthodox that the Holy Father felt it necessary to use the in pectore precaution. Surely the scandal of disunity could not be more acutely felt: What was once done out of fear of the communists was now being done in the face of the Orthodox.

It becomes all the more striking in light of the fact that John Paul made the previous archbishop of Riga, Julijans Vaivods, a cardinal in 1983 without resort to the in pectore provision, despite Latvia's then-status as part of the Soviet internal empire. Indeed, what was not even done in the face of the communists in 1983 was done in 1998 in the face of the Orthodox.

The re-emergence of Catholic life in the former Soviet republics, particularly in Ukraine, has been viewed with great alarm by the various Orthodox patriarchs, who have accused the Catholics of proselytism.

And while there have been tensions with the Latin-rite Catholics in those countries, the real point of contention is the continued presence of the Eastern-rite Catholics in Ukraine, who share common traditions of liturgy and governance with the Orthodox, but who are in union with the bishop of Rome. For almost a decade, John Paul has been caught between his goal of better relations with the Orthodox, some of whom speak quite openly of their desire for the dissolution of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches, and his desire to support those very same Catholics, who suffered terribly under the communist persecution. In 1998 the Holy Father felt it unwise to name two cardinals, even of the Latin rite, in the prevailing climate of suspicion and hostility.

What has changed since then to permit the revelation of the names now?

Nothing substantial in Catholic-Orthodox relations.

But the significance of the revelation lies in the change of the Holy Father's approach. For more than 20 years, John Paul has placed unity with the Orthodox at the top of his agenda, beginning with his 1979 visit to the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul). John Paul then imposed on himself the policy of not visiting a country where the Orthodox form the majority without an invitation from the local Orthodox bishops.

Given that such invitations were not forthcoming, John Paul did not set foot in an Orthodox country until his 1999 visit to Romania. The scandal of division meant that such a visit came many years after papal visits to non-Christian countries such as Morocco, Pakistan, India and Japan.

John Paul will no longer hold the pastoral needs of Catholics in abeyance while waiting for an increasingly unlikely breakthrough with Orthodoxy. His decision to go to Ukraine this coming June, over the objections of the Ukrainian Orthodox, signaled as much. Whereas in 1998 the Holy Father was willing to conceal the names of the new cardinals in deference to Orthodox sensibilities, that is no longer the case.

Much has happened since 1998, including the breathtakingly rude reception the Orthodox patriarch in Tbilisi gave to John Paul on his 1999 visit to Georgia, and the hostile reaction by the Orthodox bishops in Greece to his desire to visit their country on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul.

Does this mean that John Paul has given up on his dearest project, the hope for reunion with Orthodoxy? That would be going too far, but the signs are clear that such a prospect is now viewed as unattainable in the short term. Indeed, it may well be another generation before conditions are sufficiently favorable for new initiatives. In the meantime, the Catholic Church must live, and her universal pastor must attend to the various necessities, including that of recognizing the heroism of Latvian and Ukrainian Catholics by awarding their pastors the red hat.

Consistories are happy affairs. But there may well be a touch of sadness in the air this Feb. 22, the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. If there is, it will be because the divisions between Catholics and the Orthodox on what exactly that chair represents appear as intractable as ever.

At the same time, though, consis-tories are singular occasions for highlighting both the unity and universality of the Church.

As such, they are suitable occasions to renew hope for the deepening of that unity in ways — as yet unknown — which would include Orthodoxy.

----- EXCERPT: