The Pope Among the Orthodox
by Andrew Walsh
Pope John Paul II is a man who can’t take no for an answer. In recent
years he has said repeatedly that the reunion of Catholic and Orthodox
Christians is among his fondest hopes. And so, he is making systematic trips
to Orthodox lands as one of the major priorities in the waning years of his
papacy. He even goes to places, like the Ukraine, where local Orthodox
leaders have made it plain that he’s not welcome.
John Paul is willing to accept bad treatment as the cost of getting his
program across. Last year, on a trip to St. Catharine’s Monastery on Mt.
Sinai, Orthodox monks refused to pray with him. In Jerusalem a month later,
Orthodox clergy refused to pray the Lord’s Prayer with him and the
near-dead Patriarch Diodoros dragged himself to the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher to personally prevent the pope from using the main door of the
church, where the site of both Christ’s crucifixion and his tomb are
In May, John Paul arrived in Athens, where no Greek Orthodox clergy
greeted him at the airport and drove through empty streets as he entered the
city. The churches of a hyper-conservative Orthodox splinter group greeted
him with a mournful ringing of funerary bells and agitated monks held
placards denouncing him as a "two-headed grotesque monster"
(consult the Book of Revelation). A guy who often attracts more than a
million people to celebrations of the mass could not fill an 18,000-seat
indoor basketball arena.
In June, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church competed with one
another to make the strongest statements of dismay and unhappiness at the
pope’s spurning of their plea that he not visit the Ukraine—which, one
Roman Catholic official told the Boston Globe, "is ground zero
for Orthodox-Catholic tension." The streets of Kiev, the capital of a
Ukraine whose population is divided between 6 million Catholics and 30 to 45
million Orthodox, were also pretty quiet when John Paul arrived.
So what’s with the Orthodox? If even Fidel Castro can go with the flow
of a papal visit, why is it so hard for them? If nothing else, the less than
stellar public image of Orthodoxy is hardly enhanced by dissing the most
celebrated religious leader on the planet.
The London daily The Independent remarked in wonder at the
"ferocious, quite unspiritual hostility of the Russian Orthodox
church." After the Athens visit, Stewart Lamont of the Edinburgh Scotsman
observed that "when it comes to being the one true church outside of
which there is no salvation, Orthodox churches make Roman pretensions to be
the key holders of the kingdom seem almost liberal."
"The pope came to Kiev begging for Orthodox forgiveness and calling
for an end to the 1,000 year-old schism," the Baltimore Sun
editorialized on June 27. "This extraordinary appeal was not even
considered by Orthodox leaders loyal to Moscow; they chose to dwell on their
unresolved disputes with the Vatican over church property confiscated by the
Soviet Union." The Sun indicated that it is fed up with this kind of
senseless bickering. "Instead of heeding the redemptive message of the
Gospel, too many have shown themselves to be prisoners of the past. They
cannot free themselves because they don’t want to."
Truth to tell, the Orthodox aren’t sure that it’s bad to be prisoners
of the past. But it makes them inscrutable to most Western observers.
"The Orthodox view of the Catholic Church is often a curious mélange
of fact, fantasy, cultural prejudice, sublime theological misunderstanding,
resentment, reasonable disagreement and unreasonable dread," David Hart
of Duke University Divinity School told R. Jeffrey Smith of the Washington
Post on May 4.
And, as been so often the case on papal trips, in Greece John Paul did
something that genuinely shook things up. The Greek Orthodox Church had
stonewalled a papal visit for years. The nation’s socialist government,
which often spars with the church, had pushed it unwillingly into agreeing
to a papal visit that would allow the pope to retrace the missionary steps
of St. Paul. It did so by sending the President of Greece to the Vatican as
part of an end-run to invite him to visit as the head of a state, rather
than as a religious leader. Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens eventually
conceded, largely because he didn’t want the Greek church to look foolish
in the eyes of the world.
To appease conservatives, Christodoulos took a tough rhetorical line with
John Paul. At the first substantial meeting between the pope and Orthodox
clergy at the archbishop’s residence, Christodoulos dressed down the pope,
laying out a long series of Orthodox grievances with Catholics dating back
"‘Until now, there has not been heard a single request for pardon’
on behalf of the ‘maniacal crusaders of the 13th century,’"
the Washington Post quoted Christodoulos on the topic of
"Roman" oppression. "Understandably, a large part of the
[Greek church’s adherents]…opposes your presence here."
The pope immediately replied with a surprising and sweeping request for
pardon, although one directed at God rather than the Greeks. "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." He went
on to express his "deep regret" over the Crusader sack of the
Byzantine capital, Constantinople, in 1204—the event that in all
probability actually severed the Orthodox and Catholic traditions.
It was one of those magic papal moments. "Christodoulos clapped his
hands in relief as the Pope spoke," the Guardian of London
reported on May 5. "A few minutes before the popular archbishop had
delivered a stinging rebuke to the pontiff on the Vatican’s lack of
John Paul’s apology "visibly softened" Christodoulos,
reported U.S. News & World Report on May 21. Echoing the
journalistic consensus that the apology was a tour de force, U.S. News
went on to paint a picture of the pontiff’s dramatic success. "Later,
in private, the two leaders recited the Lord’s Prayer together, breaking
an Orthodox taboo against joint prayer with Catholics. At the end of the
visit, Christodoulos declared it "the beginning of a new era."
In fact, however, the whole thing was a bit of dramatic set piece.
Christodoulos delivered his tirade knowing full well that the pope was
poised to apologize. Hoping to dispel opposition in Greece, the Vatican had
told the Greek Church in advance that the apology would be made.
Christodoulos had "worked to avert wider unrest by selectively
disclosing the plan for an apology to various leaders," the Washington
Post’s Smith reported on May 5 in what stands as a scoop.
While Christodoulos’ thespian talents are widely appreciated in Greece,
he got very little acknowledgement or credit from the Western press, when he
in fact acted at John Paul’s straight man. In Greece, the archbishop
proved to be a man willing to take action to improve relations and to
protect the image of the Orthodox Church; and a skilled ecclesiastical
street fighter capable of making the conservative critics who bedevil him
look like fringe fanatics.
John Paul must have wished for a Christodoulos on his June journey to the
Ukraine, a trip billed by the press as full or risks and called the
"migraine journey" on the press plane.
The challenge was created largely by the religious tensions that
characterize the Ukraine, which one reporter called "the Bible belt of
the old Soviet Union." Most at issue is the surging revival of the
five-million-member Greek Catholic church in the western portion of Ukraine
known as Galicia. Greek Catholics use liturgies, vestments, and churches
that are indistinguishable from Orthodox ones, but have, at various points
since the 16th century "reunited" with Rome.
"John Paul views Eastern Catholics as a valuable link between the
Catholic and Orthodox traditions," Deborah Weissberg reported in the
July 4 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But many Orthodox regard
Eastern Catholics as traitors."
Ukraine means "border" and segments of both the Orthodox and
Catholic churches have been pushed or pulled in both directions whenever the
border moved east or west. The Greek Catholic Church was created in the
1590s and it expanded in times and places of Catholic power and contracted
in times of Russian dominance.
The western, and dominantly Greek Catholic, region of Ukraine around the
city of Lviv greeted the pope ecstatically. The rest of the Ukraine was
indifferent. And the pope came to Ukraine specifically to celebrate the
Greek Catholic churches’ recovery from devastating persecution by the
Soviet government—persecution that forced Greek Catholics into the Russian
Orthodox church in the late 1940s when the area around Lviv, which had been
part of Poland, became part of the Soviet Union.
Greek Catholics resisted, were savagely suppressed by the Soviet
authorities, and viewed the Russian Orthodox as complicit in their
suffering. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Greek Catholic church
reasserted itself, sometimes violently. In the 1980s, the Russian Orthodox
church claimed more than 1,200 parishes in the Lviv region. Now it has about
15. More than 400 Orthodox priests have shifted into the Greek Catholic
Orthodox clergy and believers have often been treated badly in recent
years in the Western Ukraine, and articles like Ellen Hale’s June 22 piece
in USA Today and Susan Glasser’s June 20 article in the Washington
Post depicted their struggles. Remnants of the Orthodox communities
worship in cottages and even old buses, and often can’t get local building
permits to replace the churches they were ejected from.
Greek Catholics, of course, see themselves as merely restoring the
pre-Soviet status quo. But, as Glasser noted, the pope was choosing to
identify himself with Greek Catholics "in an area where reborn Greek
Catholicism has become intertwined with anti-Russian political
nationalism." Clashes between Orthodox and Greek Catholics "are
not just over who controls the churches, but over the extent of Russian
influence on Ukraine, a country poised between the capitalist West and the
So, when cranky Russian Orthodox hierarchs complain about Catholic
"proselytism," they aren’t so much thinking of the distant past
as of the past decade—the era of John Paul II.
The pope came to Ukraine and preached a message of reconciliation.
"Let us recognize our faults as we ask forgiveness for the errors
committed in both the distant and recent past," the pope said when he
landed in Kiev. "Let us in turn offer forgiveness for the wrongs
Richard Boudreaux of the Los Angeles Times provided the best sense
of the pope’s position on "proselytizing" in a piece published
June 24. "I wish to assure (non-Catholics) that I have not come here
with the intention of proselytizing, but to bear witness to Christ together
with all Christians."
Boudreaux quoted Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s senior
ecumenical officer: "We want the Orthodox to remain Orthodox. We want
to help them, not hurt them. The problem is that the Orthodox have a
different definition of proselytism." The Vatican, Boudreaux continued,
"asserts the right to set up churches wherever it finds believers, some
Orthodox leaders regard their territory as sovereign and inviolable. The
growth of Catholic communities, just like the arrival of the pope, is seen
as an invasion."
Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times assessed the papal trip
to Ukraine this way on July 1: "His trip had two, at times clashing
goals. He wanted to celebrate the rebirth of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic
Church…But he also wanted to soften the resistance of the Russian Orthodox
Church, which views the pope’s support for Ukraine’s five million Greek
Catholics as one of the chief obstacles to reconciliation."
This was roughly the equivalent of going to Appalachia to encourage peace
and reconciliation between the Hatfields and the McCoys and also to honor
the Hatfields for their fidelity to principle.
From the Russian point of view, it’s all well and good to ask that
bygones be bygones in the name of future cooperation. But they couldn’t
help noticing that the pope waited until his side got its own back before
calling for all to live and let live.
And so, the Russians, the Greeks, and (Lord knows) the Serbs remain
reluctant to respond to John Paul’s passionate efforts at reconciliation.
And it remains unclear, after papal visits to Orthodox Churches to Georgia
and Romania as well as Greece, Ukraine, and the Holy Land, just what he
expects will happen to end 1,000 years of bitter division.
At the heart of the Catholic-Orthodox division is a dispute about the
organization and nature of the church—the question of whether the
Christian church is understood to be an integrated organization under the
leadership and control of the Bishop of Rome, or a collegial body
self-governing, geographically defined churches that share communion,
theology, and identity. This single issue is far more important than
differences over things like proper iconography, the use of leavened or
unleavened bread in communion, whether clergy can marry, or even the
definition of the person of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity.
It is here that, from the Orthodox point of view, Pope John Paul is stuck
between his vigorous assertion of Roman privilege and his yearning for
union. And why the Greek Catholic Church and the other Catholic
"Eastern Rite" churches are such a thorn in the side of the
The position of the Orthodox churches of the Middle East and Eastern
Europe is that they were never "under" the papacy. The Orthodox
see the Latin rite as a valid, ancient form of worship and organization,
especially if it abandons its claim of universal sovereignty. The 500 years
of formal Roman policy of encouraging and even levering Orthodox worshipers
into "union" with Rome, in Orthodox eyes, has created a series of
hybrid groups that threaten the autonomy and integrity of local Orthodox
The Orthodox "solution" is clear, if not well known: The
Eastern Rite churches should be dissolved as part of the process of
resolving differences between Catholics and the Orthodox. The fundamental
unit of the historic Christian church is the diocese, and Christian
believers in a given place who are in communion with another should live
together in one ecclesiastical organization. That means that Greek Catholics
in the Ukraine or Romania or Syria should revert to Orthodoxy. And it
probably means that Orthodox worshipers in the West should integrate into
the Roman church structure after reunion.
John Paul has been less than forthcoming about how thinks the issues that
divide the two ancient churches can be resolved. In particular, he’s given
no concrete sense of what he’s willing to do to make a deal. The Russian
Orthodox, in particular, thinks that John Paul should have discouraged the
dramatic revival of the Greek Catholic church in the Ukraine for the sake of
peace and reconciliation with the Orthodox.
That, of course, is a lot to ask, of a pope and a group of people who
suffered persecution for 50 years because of their loyalty to the papacy.
But the Pope is the one who’s pushing for reconciliation. The trip to the
Ukraine was almost certainly a step backwards in Orthodox-Catholic
The Pope’s great dream is to visit Moscow, where there are very few
Catholics of any sort, and lots of very suspicious Orthodox. Patriarch
Alexei doesn’t want him any time soon.
But the next papal visit to countries with Orthodox and Catholic
populations is just around the corner. He is scheduled to visit Kazakhstan
and Armenia in September. We’ll see what he has to say.
Relativism, and Reaction, Religion in the
News, Fall 2000
for the Pilgrimage, Religion in the News, Summer 2000