ROME, OCT. 30, 2002 ( At the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII was already actively fostering relations with the Eastern Churches.

This is the thesis highlighted in the symposium "Leo XIII and the East," held last week at the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome. Participants included Monsignor Eleuterio Francesco Fortino, vice secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The symposium addressed the question of Eastern-rite Catholics in union with the Pope, as well as the importance of the Jerusalem Eucharistic Congress of 1893.

In this connection, Belgian professor Claude Soetens explained that the Jerusalem Eucharistic Congress was initially organized to honor the Blessed Sacrament with liturgical celebrations and studies. Leo XIII wished to take advantage of the occasion to launch an initiative of aid and rapprochement to the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Leo XIII tried to bring together the highest non-Catholic ecclesiastical authorities -- the Greek and Armenian patriarchs, the Coptic metropolitan, the Syro-Jacobite bishop -- but it was not possible.

In the apostolic letter "Praeclara Gratulationis" of June 20, 1894, the Pontiff recalled the original unity of the Church and invited the Christian East to re-establish it, noting that before the separation, all Christians of the East and West had unanimously recognized the Bishop of Rome as Successor of Peter.

That same year, Leo XIII wrote the apostolic letter "Orientalium Dignitas," in which he established the "Commission for the Reconciliation of the Dissidents," a forerunner of today's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The commission shut down with Leo's death.

According to professor Claude Soetens of the Catholic University of Leuven, the plan of union with the Christian East was one of Leo XIII's priorities, although he is far more known for his social encyclical "Rerum Novarum."

Historian Vittorio Peri addressed the question of Eastern-rite Catholics, and said that, in order to go forward, it is necessary to clarify the terms unity (among Christians) and union (of Churches).

Father Hector Vall, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, said during the Oct. 24 symposium that "the roads of ecumenism are not easy," and referred to Leo XIII as "a giant who looked toward the East and opened a new Catholic perspective toward the Christian East."