Pastoral Desire Is Pushing Pope to Ukraine

Expert in Dialogue with Oriental Churches Tells of Obstacles

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ROME, JAN. 28, 2001 (
A pastoral desire to meet with the suffering Catholics in the East is impelling John Paul II to travel to Ukraine this June and to continue to hope for a visit to Moscow, says an expert in the ecumenical dialogue with the Oriental Churches.

Camaldolese Father Innocenzo Gargano presented his views Friday as he was attending a meeting, held at the headquarters of the Teresian Association in Italy, at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The theologian´s position is confirmed in John Paul II´s announcement today of new cardinals, among whom are two from Ukraine and one from Latvia.

Father Gargano believes it is impossible to understand the Pope´s trip to Romania and his scheduled visit to Ukraine, without reference to the situation of Catholics in these countries of Eastern Europe.

The priest noted the big step taken by some of these faithful and their bishops. Their opting for obedience to Rome, while maintaining their Orthodox traditions and liturgy, caused bitterness in the greater part of the Orthodox world, which is still evidenced today, Father Gargano said. In time, these Greek-Catholics (of the Eastern rite) as they are known, were subjected to Soviet or Nazi oppression, which resulted in a Church of martyrs, the theologian explained.

Given the problems with the Orthodox world, Greek-Catholic communities in the Ukraine, where they are most numerous, regarded the Vatican´s first steps toward dialogue as a betrayal. Moreover, in that atmosphere it was difficult to establish peaceful relations with Orthodoxy.

Father Gargano, a frequent adviser to the Vatican, said the absence of Moscow´s Patriarch Alexis II from the ecumenical meeting in Graz, Austria, in 1997, showed how uneasy the Russian Orthodox Church is with the papal trips to the East.

John Paul II has commented in private circles that his desire to visit those countries, especially Russia, is to fulfill his pastoral duties toward the 1 million Catholics who were deported from Eastern Europe and exiled into Siberia.

Against great odds, many of these believers persevered in the faith, Father Gargano said. Logically the Pope feels it is his pastoral duty to meet with them, the priest added.

Obstacles remain, however. Father Gargano explained that, within Orthodoxy, ecumenism continues to be widely regarded as «the synthesis of all heresies.» Patriarch Athenagoras, so loved in the West because of his famous embrace with Paul VI, was not well regarded by the rest of the Orthodox hierarchy. Those representatives of the Orthodox Churches, who at times even sign agreements with the Catholic Church, have «a very splintered world» behind them, and «their faithful do not always feel represented by them,» Father Gargano concluded.

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