‘That They May Be One’ The Russians are suddenly accepting Vatican delegations that were cold-shouldered in the past. Greek patriarchs approvingly cite Pope Benedict XVI. And evangelical Christian leaders applaud his writings, from Introduction to Christianity to Dominus Iesus. What’s going on here? Pope John Paul II was urgent about Christian unity and effective in his efforts to seek it. Benedict is reaping what John Paul sowed — but he’s also expanding his work and honing its focus. In a series of articles, we look at the ecumenical drive of Pope Benedict’s pontificate.

SAN FRANCISCO — The breach of the Western and Eastern Christians in the Great Schism has been entrenched for 1,000 years. How soon could it be healed under Pope Benedict?

“If there is a will this union can become reality in a very short time,” Greek Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco told the Register of hopes for unity between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

The test, according to the member of the Joint Committee of Orthodox and Catholic Bishops in the United States, “is to what extent we are willing to dare in a new way of seeing things.”

Metropolitan Gerasimos’ hope is not the incautious optimism of an American bishop far removed from the heart of conflict between Catholic and Orthodox. In Rome, Constantinople and even Moscow, Orthodox and Catholic leaders are expressing new urgency for reconciliation and daring new ways to speak to each other.

Consider these signs in Rome and Moscow:

— In Rome, Metropolitan Kirill, chief ecumenical officer of the Russian Orthodox Church, met with Pope Benedict May 18 and later praised the Holy Father as a theologian. He told reporters the relationship between the two Churches “is developing in a more dynamic way,” under Benedict’s leadership.

— In Moscow, Patriarch Alexy II met privately with Catholic cardinals during the World Summit of Religious Leaders held July 3-5. Included in that meeting was Russian Catholic Bishops’ Chairman Joseph Werth. Only four years ago, the patriarch had objected to the very existence of Bishop Werth’s diocese in western Siberia.

At that summit, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray was invited on Russian television to express Rome’s love of the Russian Church and Rome’s hope for unity.

His hope is well founded:

— The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, stalled over the status of Eastern Catholic Churches since 2000, will resume on the subject of papal primacy in Belgrade Sept. 18.

— In November, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will welcome the Holy Father to Istanbul. On a visit to Florence in May, the patriarch said the Holy Father’s visit “will be a historic moment in our relationship ... and will further reinforce our bonds of brotherhood in Christ.” Referring to Pope Paul VI’s description of the unity between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches as “almost full,” the patriarch said, “We must work to erase this ‘almost’ so that the unity is full.”

Catholic and Orthodox leaders who spoke with the Register agree that three factors have contributed to this renewal of activity and hope for unity between the two Churches.

Humble, Decisive Leader

“The Holy Father is a very holy man who is smarter than the next 100 people put together — but he’s very humble,” retired Washington Archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said. As part of the Catholic delegation to the July summit in Moscow, Cardinal McCarrick said he was surprised that his Russian Orthodox hosts “were very anxious for a message from the Holy Father. ... I don’t think they would have been that enthusiastic about a message from Pope John Paul II.”

Cardinal McCarrick said many of the Orthodox Churches “have serious problems because of political developments in their areas. The Holy Father appreciates that and wants to give help.” Cardinal McCarrick said he believes the Orthodox can see that the Holy Father “does not look at his help as something that will take them over, but as something that will give them strength.”

The Pope is well prepared for dialogue. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “he has been involved in practically every ecumenical discussion in recent decades,” said Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

He is “personally close” to many Orthodox theologians and is “following closely the preparation for the next session of the Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue.”

Metropolitan Gerasimos agrees that Pope Benedict is “very keen to the issues and well informed and he is decisive.”

He particularly sees hope in the Pope’s stewardship of the Catholic Church.

“Either because of the scandals or theological issues there have been questions in people’s minds about the stability of the Church,” Metropolitan Gerasimos said. “Theologically as well as pastorally, the reign of Benedict has begun making sure the Church is stable and has a position in society — a definitive position.”

Focus on the Issues

A consensus has developed among the Orthodox to “move by the impasse” which stalled the international Orthodox-Catholic adialogue in 2000.

Paulist Father Ronald Roberson, the U.S. bishops’ ecumenical officer for dialogue with the Orthodox, explained that dialogue broke down because of Orthodox objections to the status of the “uniate” Churches, those Eastern Churches in union with Rome.

But, the former staffer at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity said, “if one insists on solving the problem of uniatism without first resolving the question of primacy, it’s an unsolvable problem.”

For Catholics, Father Roberson said, “communion with the Bishop of Rome is the touchstone of the universal communion of the Church. For Eastern Churches, their tradition since the very beginning has been self governance.” The task in the international dialogue then will be to “find some way to balance those two poles.”

Pope John Paul II had in 1987 assured the Orthodox of his “readiness to fully recognize the Eastern tradition of self-government,” Father Roberson said. Pope Benedict has taken that symbolically a step further in the way the Vatican announces new bishops in Eastern Catholic Churches.

The Pope no longer approves or accepts the election of Eastern bishops; the Vatican website simply reports it as a fact, he said.

But primacy involves “more than letting someone choose their own bishops,” Metropolitan Gerasimos said. The greatest task of dialogue is to discuss primacy “with sincerity and honesty and prayer to find a way to interpret it … so it can stop being a stumbling block that everything just crushes up against.”

In Need of Christ

“All of us have heard the Lord Jesus say to us by prayer ‘that all may be one,’” Cardinal McCarrick said. “We’re not the only ones who listen to that. … Christians listen to it all over the world.”

The Orthodox in particular want to join with Catholics in bringing the light of Christ to a secularized and troubled world, he explained. Referring to recent Russian Orthodox overtures to work with the Catholic Church to battle secularism, Cardinal McCarrick said, “It is very interesting that in a country that had been known for its godless atheism there is a call that very much mirrors the call of Pope Benedict.”

The most important driving force of the recent rapprochement between East and West, Metropolitan Gerasimos said, “is the urgency of the Christian Church to have a united voice in today’s problems.” Since 2000, he said, “explosive events have taken place affecting issues of faith, security and freedom of religion.” Two-thirds of the world is suffering today, he said, “and the Gospel has not been preached. We are a minority in the world.”

Metropolitan Gerasimos said the situation of the world requires a “common stand” and that Christians must not be separated in “little camps perpetuating something that is not relevant today.”

The need of the world for the Gospel means that “churches today, much more than any time in our lives, have a command by Christ for more substantive work toward unity.”

>(CNS and Zenit

contributed to this report.)

Jack Smith writes from

San Francisco.

A Pope Begs Forgiveness

“The Jubilee calls our attention to certain kinds of past and present sins that demand we invoke God’s mercy in a special way. I refer, above all, to the painful reality of the division among Christians. The wounds of the past, for which both sides share the guilt, continue to be a scandal for the world.”

— Pope John Paul II, 1999

“Merciful Father, on the night before his Passion, your Son prayed for the unity of those who believe in him: In disobedience to his will, however, believers have opposed one another, becoming divided, and have mutually condemned one another and fought against one another.”

— John Paul II, Confession of Sins and Asking for Forgiveness March 12, 2000

“For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of him.”

— John Paul II, May 4, 2001, letter to Archbishop Christodoulos