VATICAN CITY — St. Paul, “Apostle to the Gentiles,” can show Christians the way toward unity, Pope Benedict XVI firmly believes.

And primarily for this reason, the Pope has dedicated a year to this key figure in Christianity.

From June 2008 to June 2009, the Church will celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of the saint’s birth, which historians believe took place between 7 and 10 A.D.

The Holy Father made the announcement June 28, on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

According to observers, the year will be of particular relevance to Catholic-Orthodox relations.

“It’s a good opportunity to stage ecumenical events on the theology and life of St. Paul as he prompts us to look east, to the centers of Byzantium — Turkey, Greece and Cyprus,” said Father Johan Bonny, Vatican official responsible for Catholic-Orthodox relations at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. “He is associated with the origins of several local churches there, and of course he is very relevant and dear to Protestants.”

Special Studies

Benedict explained during his June 28 homily that the focus of the Pauline Year will be in Rome, at the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls where the tomb of St. Paul has recently been rediscovered.

But he added there will also be conferences and special studies on St. Paul’s writings around the world, “in local dioceses, shrines and places of worship, religious, educational and welfare institutions bearing St. Paul’s name or inspired by him and his teachings.”

This is important, said Father Bonny, because until now Catholic-Orthodox dialogue has mostly been conducted at higher levels, such as the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Although that commission has made significant progress in Catholic-Orthodox relations, and restarted dialogue last year after a six-year hiatus, grassroots-level effort is also required if dialogue is to produce unity.

“The theological commission has its own agenda, but this is something extra that is needed,” said Father Bonny. “It will bring in other clergy, laity, scholars and others into the dialogue.”

Metropolitan Gennadios of Sassima, the Orthodox co-president of the joint commission, said the reaction among the Orthodox to news of the Pauline Year has been “very positive.”

The Orthodox bishop, who is based at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, said a similar proposal had been discussed at the Patriarchate to celebrate the life of St. John Chrysostom (349-ca. 407).

Metropolitan Gennadios said it was “very premature” to predict what a year dedicated to St. Paul might achieve.

“We have to discuss and reflect on the initiative, but the Church of Constantinople will be grateful to hear any concrete proposals,” he said.

The Pauline Year will take place during a key stage in Catholic-Orthodox relations. Benedict’s papacy has already provided substantial impetus to the dialogue, due to the esteem he enjoys among the Orthodox as a theologian and also to the success of his visit last year to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in Istanbul.

Headway has also been made with respect to the chief obstacle to Catholic-Orthodox unity — papal primacy. Metropolitan Gennadios said the priority now is to finalize a text upon which both Churches can agree regarding the role and authority of the Bishop of Rome in the local and universal Church.

The joint commission met in Rome in March and agreed on a draft that will be discussed at the next meeting in Ravenna, Italy, Oct. 8-15.

Metropolitan Gennadios hopes the commission will be able to “make plans for the future and introduce a new theme for the next period,” but he disclosed that Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Benedict will not be present at the meeting as hoped.

Said Metropolitan Gennadios, “They have not time for it.”

Preparatory Work

Concrete arrangements for the Pauline Year have yet to begin, Father Bonny said, and considerable preparatory work is necessary.

Said Father Bonny, “We will begin a year of ecumenical reflection in September when we’ll make contact with our ecumenical partners, but no reflections will take place until after the summer.”

Benedict clearly believes St. Paul will serve as a beacon for Christian unity. As well as being especially involved in bringing the Good News to all peoples, “the Apostle to the Nations did all he could for the unity and harmony of all Christians,” the Holy Father said June 28.

 “May he lead and protect us in this bi-millenary celebration, helping us progress in a humble and sincere search for the complete unity of all the parts of the mystical Body of Christ.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.