ROME—When Pope John Paul II gave a relic of St. Gregory to the Armenian Apostolic Church late last fall, it was more than just the physical transfer of a saint's bodily remains.

It was a gesture meant to express the Catholic Church's respect for this Oriental Orthodox Church, and its desire for eventual reunion with the Church.

Giving relics and icons to the Orthodox to improve relations with the East is an increasingly popular Vatican strategy, especially under Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II.

As Jesuit Father Edward Faruggia, professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome puts it, “They are excellent signs of the ‘dialogue of love’” which “opens hearts and prepares the mind to listen to discussion.” Because relics are revered in both Catholic and Orthodox tradition, they provide an important common ground.

Relics are the bodily remains of saints (first class relics), clothing or objects used during a saint's life (second class), as well as articles that have touched their remains or tombs (third class).

“The reason why we Orthodox venerate relics,” said Metropolitan Maximus of Pittsburgh, co-chair of the theological consultation between the Orthodox and Catholic Church in North America, “is that we believe the body has an important role to play in the life of holiness. Man is a pyscho-physical unit. You cannot separate body and soul. The bodies of saints are honored because of the way in which they venerated the Lord.”

Good St. Greg

The Pope's gift of St. Gregory's relic was of singular importance to the Armenian Apostolic Church. St. Gregory converted King Tiridates III at the beginning of the fourth century in ancient Armenia, making Armenia the first country to adopt Christianity as its state religion.

Large crowds gathered at the airport when the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch returned home with the relic.

As one Vatican official who was travelling with the Armenian delegation put it, “It was as if the founder was going back to his country.”

The current plan is to display the relic in every church in Armenia before its placement in a new cathedral in September 2001.

One of the first major relic transfers occurred in late 1964. During the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Augustin Bea brought the head of St. Andrew back to Patras, Greece, the place where the apostle was crucified. The relic had been given to Pope Pius II in 1462. Cardinal Bea, who brought the relic to the Greeks on behalf of Pope Paul VI, was moved to tears when he saw the throngs of people lining the roads from the airport to the church in Patras.

Old St. Nick

Another relic transfer involved the reliquary of St. Nicolas in Bari, Italy. St. Nicolas is one of the most revered saints in the Russian Orthodox Church, and is popular in the Catholic Church.

Italian sailors from Bari stole the saint's remains from Myra, Turkey, in 1087 after Muslims took control of the city. Since then, the saint's bones have never left Bari. A piece of wood from the original tomb was given to a Russian Orthodox parish on Long Island 10 years ago. Water that gathers around the tomb is sometimes collected and given to Orthodox groups that visit.

The transfer of religious objects also takes place from the Orthodox to the Catholic Church. In 1964, Patriarch Athenagoras gave Pope Paul VI an icon depicting St. Peter and St. Andrew in a fraternal embrace—symbolizing the meeting of the Pope and the patriarch in Jerusalem a few months earlier.

Father Gerardo Cioffari, director of the archives at St. Nicolas’ Basilica in Bari, spoke of the “beautiful relationship” his city had with the Russian Orthodox Church. “From the 1700s onwards we have been exchanging icons, paintings and religious objects. We have never had a moment of crisis with them.” In fact, St. Nicolas Basilica frequently allows Russian Orthodox priests to celebrate mass at the altar with the saint's remains.

Giving relics to the Orthodox has “fantastic significance,” according to Metropolitan Maximus. “We share our saints together. By giving part of the relics back, the Church of Rome respects and venerates the Church which produced the saint.”

“But it also brings us together,” the metropolitan said. “When we venerate a saint, it unites two Churches together. It's an ontological bond, not just psychological. The lives of the saints create unity because it is the same life of holiness for all Churches.”

According to Msgr. Arthur Calkins, an official at the pontifical commission Ecclesia Dei, returning relics to the East is a legitimate practice given that most of them were taken, or stolen, during the Crusades. “It can be considered part of the ‘cleansing of conscience’ that John Paul II frequently talks about.”

Long Way to Go

Though the Pope has long desired the unity of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, he may not live to see his dream fulfilled. The Russian Orthodox Church has been especially hard to approach. Its patriarch, Alexi II, has twice backed out of meetings with the Pope in the last five years—once in Hungary in 1996, another time in Austria in 1997. Each time he backpedaled, he blamed the Catholic Church for missionary activity in traditionally Orthodox territory and “persecutions” against Ukrainian Orthodox by Ukrainian Greek Catholics.

One gesture that may help relations with the Russian Orthodox would be the return of the celebrated icon of Our Lady of Kazan. Painted on wood during the 13th century, it is considered to be miraculous because of the various times the people of Moscow received protection from foreign invaders after praying to her.

It was taken out of Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, changing hands numerous times within Europe and the United States during the past century. In 1970, the icon was purchased by the Fatima-inspired organization, Blue Army, and placed in its chapel in Fatima, Portugal.

According to Michael Fix, the Blue Army's national director in the United States, the icon stayed in Fatima for a number of years, before being transferred to the Vatican.

Restitution to the Russian Orthodox Church could take place within the context of a meeting between the Pope and Patriarch Alexi II, or during the Pope's upcoming visit to the Ukraine in June. A successful trip to the Ukraine could open the way for a papal visit to Moscow.

However, delicacy and timing are very important when it comes to giving a relic. Because of the strained relationship with the Russian Orthodox, Our Lady of Kazan may be staying in the Pope's own apartment longer than expected.

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi writes from Rome.