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Unwelcome Mat Out for Pope

Friday, 04 May 2001 12:00 AM

If the Vatican project is aimed at laying the foundations for overcoming the great schism that sundered Catholic and Orthodox Christians almost a thousand years ago, the impact of the pope's trip looks more likely to divide than unite.

Eighty years old and clearly infirm, the most widely travelled pope ever has been almost homebound for the past year, but the pilgrimage starting today marks a return to his obsessive globetrotting after an uncharacteristically long period in Rome.

The visit to Greece, though agreed by the Greek Orthodox church hierarchy, has aroused outpourings of fury and suspicion among the Greek clergy, with Orthodox priests denouncing the pope as a heretic, the devil's envoy, and a monster.

Anti-Vatican demonstrations are expected during the visit which took two years of painstaking official diplomacy to organise.

The visit to Ukraine next month is even more contested and unparallelled in that it is taking place despite the formal and bluntly stated opposition of the Russian church hierarchy and the main Ukrainian Orthodox church which comes under Moscow's jurisdiction.

"This is the first time ever that the Vatican has in fact chosen to ignore the views of the Orthodox church," says Felix Corley who monitors religious affairs in the former Soviet Union for the Keston Institute. "Patriarch Alexy said the pope can't come, the time is not right. And the pope said I'm coming anyway."

For the first Slav pope who did so much to further the end of communism across much of the Orthodox world, the visits to Athens, Kiev, and Lviv in western Ukraine appear to have taken on great personal importance.

But for suspicious Orthodox leaders, the papal visits are all about intrusion, proselytising, and seeking ultimately to assert Vatican hegemony over the Orthodox world.

"These visits are very historic," says Father Igor Vyzhanov, the official at the Moscow patriarchate responsible for relations with Roman Catholicism. "But if a Catholic sees them as a positive sign, it's a negative signal to the Orthodox believer. There are great historical wounds and the pope is rubbing salt into them."

In John Paul's long campaign to woo the Orthodox, the big prize is a visit to Moscow - which Russian believers call the Third Rome - and a meeting with Patriarch Alexy, the hardline leader of the world's biggest Orthodox church.

The Russian Orthodox Church is larger than all the other Orthodox churches combined which helps explain why the pope is so keen to come to Moscow.

But the chances of such a meeting before John Paul dies have been reduced to almost nil; during the recent Orthodox Easter celebrations, the patriarch reiterated his opposition to hosting a papal visit.

In visits to the Vatican, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, and prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, have resisted Catholic pressure to agree to a papal trip.

"The arrival of the pope in Russia would cause an even greater reaction than we are currently seeing in Greece," says Father Vyzhanov. "And the Ukraine trip makes things even worse, more impossible."

Under pressure from the Moscow patriarchate, Russia is the only post-communist country not to have established full diplomatic relations with the Vatican in the decade since the iron curtain disintegrated in eastern Europe.

Mr Corley says that Patriarch Alexy has concluded that he will never meet the Polish pope and that this realisation has spurred the Vatican to snub Moscow and go ahead with the Ukraine visit.

The pope is to go to Lviv, the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism in the west of the country where Greek Catholicism - the Uniates - is the dominant church.

Historically, the Greek Catholics were established on the east European fringes of the Catholic Austro-Hungarian empire in the 17th century as part of imperial Vienna's attempt to convert the Orthodox.

The Greek Catholics owe their loyalty to the Vatican while using Orthodox rites in their services. Since communism collapsed, the Orthodox and Uniates have been clashing, sometimes violently, over church property.

Earlier this year the pope named two new cardinals in Ukraine, including the head of the Greek Catholics, of whom there are 5m. It emerged that one of the cardinals had been consecrated in 1998, but that his appointment had been kept secret.

Such arcane Vatican political manoeuvring feeds Orthodox paranoia and the suspicion that the Greek Catholics are being used as a Trojan horse with the aim of seeking converts from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism.

The visit to Greece today is the first by a pope since the great schism of 1054 split christianity into Orthodox and Catholic churches and is expected to result in an ecumenical message issued jointly by the Vatican and Greek Orthodox leaders.

But the chances of healing the rift between Rome and Constantinople are now looking as frail as Pope John Paul's health.

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If the Vatican project is aimed at laying the foundations for overcoming the great schism that sundered Catholic and Orthodox Christians almost a thousand years ago, the impact of the pope's trip looks more likely to divide than unite. Eighty years old and clearly...
Friday, 04 May 2001 12:00 AM
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