Papal Trip to Ukraine Defended as "Pastoral"

Catholic Archbishop Rejects Proselytism Claim

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MOSCOW, MAY 31, 2001 ( John Paul II has visited countries with fewer Catholics than Ukraine, says an archbishop who addressed claims that the Pope has no business visiting the predominantly Orthodox nation.

Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Moscow held a press conference Tuesday to highlight the conclusions of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the rebirth of the Latin Catholic Church in Russia. The celebration ended here Sunday.

He spent considerable time discussing John Paul II´s forthcoming visit to Ukraine, and his possible, but by no means assured, visit to Moscow.

The president of the Russian Catholic bishops´ conference explained once again that the June 23-27 papal trip to Ukraine was «pastoral» and not «political.»

Orthodox opposed to the trip say that Catholics in Ukraine are relatively few in number, and thus the trip isn´t justified.

But Archbishop Kondrusiewicz observed that «the Pope has already made almost 100 pilgrimages to different countries of the world. He goes to places where his faithful are, and has been in countries where there are fewer Catholics than in Ukraine.»

The archbishop confirmed that, during the Pontiff´s visit to Kiev, there will be no official meeting with Metropolitan Archbishop Vladimir, head of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which is obedient to the Moscow Patriarchate. He did not exclude an informal meeting at the reception planned in the presidential palace.

Referring to the situation of Catholics in Russia, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz rejected Orthodox accusations of proselytism. He said: «We are here to serve those who have Catholic roots and wish to continue to be Catholic.»

At the same time, the archbishop deplored the obstacles to Catholic Church activity thrown up by Russian authorities. Visas are denied to some foreign priests, and only two Catholic religious orders have been able to register officially, the Franciscans and the Jesuits.

John Paul II sent Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican secretary for relations with states, as his special envoy to the 10th anniversary celebrations.

During his stay, Archbishop Tauran was received by Eugeni Gusarov, Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs. The pair referred to the «harmony» of Moscow´s and Rome´s positions on the «fundamental problems of the contemporary world,» according to a press statement by Gusarov.

During Sunday´s Mass, which culminated the 10th anniversary celebrations, Archbishop Tauran mentioned that in Moscow «the Catholic community lives next to the Russian Orthodox Church,» and that «the apostolic dialogue is neither propaganda nor proselytism,» but a message of reconciliation.

The Moscow Patriarchate expresses very different sentiments. A few days ago, when visiting Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, Patriarch Alexy II said the papal visit to Kiev and Lvov «will make that much more tense the relations between the representatives of religious positions in Ukraine.»

During the Pope´s stay in Ukraine, «there will be no meeting at any level with bishops and clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,» the archbishop said, referring to the Church that is obedient to Moscow. Schisms divide the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

Positive signs of dialogue exist, however. One is the recent conference in Moscow organized by the Russian Interconfessional Christian Committee. The conference was presided over by Catholic Archbishop Kondrusiewicz; Orthodox Metropolitan Archbishop Kirill, head of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Moscow Patriarchate and regarded as No. 2 after Alexy II; and Baptist pastor Pjotr Kovalcik.

Both John Paul II and Alexy II sent messages to the conference. Both texts were published by the Catholic weekly newspaper Svet Evangelija.

The Holy Father wrote: «I am pleased to hear about an initiative that tends toward the development of cooperation between the Churches and ecclesial communities of the Community of Independent States and the Baltic Countries.»

For his part, the Orthodox Patriarch said that the conference «testifies to the ardent desire to induce the youth of the different Christian confessions to follow the high ideals of Christian life in the different spheres of social life.»

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