VATICAN CITY, MARCH 31, 2003 ( Father Johan Bonny, a member of the Vatican delegation that visited the Greek Orthodox Church from Feb. 10-14, is optimistic about ties with the East.

In this interview with ZENIT, he highlights the significance of the meetings between the Vatican and the Greek Orthodox Church, and foresees ever-greater cooperation at the cultural, social, ecological and academic level.

Father Bonny, a Belgian diocesan priest and official of the Eastern section of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, thinks that the openness of Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece is determinant in this process of Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

Q: Is the Vatican visit to Athens inscribed within the tradition or is it a novelty?

Father Bonny: To call it a tradition is premature. In any case, it is a new process promoted by Archbishop Christodoulos and by his Holy Synod, in an attempt to come closer to the other Churches of Europe.

Thanks to this openness, the Pope's visit to Greece was able to take place in May 2001. It was the first time that a Pontiff was received in Hellenic land. A new direct relation has been established, and we hope it will continue in this way.

Q: What was the effect of the Pope's visit to Athens?

Father Bonny: It was a very important moment for the Church in Greece, a human and spiritual meeting of great significance. This event was followed by the visit of the Greek Orthodox Church to the Vatican, specifically in March 2002, and now this Vatican visit of ours to Athens in February has taken place.

These exchanges will continue; it is very important that contact has been established and that the process not stop.

Q: What issues were discussed in this Vatican visit to Athens?

Father Bonny: Above all, there was talk of Europe, as well as of cultural, social, economic and environmental challenges. There was also discussion on the way to stimulate exchanges between Catholic and Greek Orthodox students.

Bioethics was a topic at the center of discussions. In this connection, it is interesting to know that a high-level Bioethics Center has been created in Athens; in fact, it is among the best in Europe. There is a desire to cooperate with other centers of this type, and they are looking for new channels of cooperation.

Q: Does the fact of cooperation in social, cultural and environmental issues mean that the doctrinal aspect in the ecumenical way is blocked?

Father Bonny: They are parallel ways: the "dialogue of charity" and "the dialogue of truth."

The "dialogue of truth" has been entrusted to the international commission for theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Therefore, the theological dialogue is not taking place with the particular Orthodox Churches, as the Greek Orthodox Church would be in this case, but with all the Orthodox Churches as a whole.

The "dialogue of charity," however, is open to the particular Orthodox Churches. Lately, various initiatives have been undertaken in this field.

I am thinking, for example, of the visits of Cardinal Walter Kasper to the Orthodox Churches of Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Serbia. To the degree that these initiatives help to create a new climate of trust and fraternity, they will have a positive effect on the theological dialogue.

In fact, we are conscious that the pastoral dialogue with the particular Churches can have a positive effect on the theological dialogue.

Q: Who are that 1% of Greek Catholics?

Father Bonny: The Catholic Church in Greece is made up primarily of Catholics who have come from other continents. If before the majority were French, English and Italian, today the face [of the Church] is above all Asian and African.

The greater part of these Catholics are workers or refugees. There is also a small community of the Byzantine rite, without forgetting, of course, the Catholic Greeks, such as the archbishop of Athens, Nikolaos Foscolos. The social problems that must be faced by this heterogeneous population is also a motive for joint pastoral work with the Orthodox.

Q: Archbishop Christodoulos is seen as a traitor by some members of his Church, who do not accept the talks with Rome. Has this opposition delayed fluid relations between Rome and Athens?

Father Bonny: Christodoulos is a prudent and courageous archbishop who must seek a middle way between those who are very attached to tradition or are wounded by some historical events, and those who are open to the ecumenical movement or to the Catholic Church.

It is important to emphasize that Archbishop Christodoulos is not the only one who is open to dialogue; he is not alone: Many faithful, also of the monastic world, are by his side, as well as many members of the Holy Synod.

Q: What can Catholics learn from the Greek Orthodox?

Father Bonny: We have much to learn, both the Westerners of the East as well as the Easterners of the West. On one hand, at the level of the Church as institution, the West can learn from the Easterners their synodal system.

On the other hand, the East can learn from the West the way in which the Catholic Church has been able to develop a communion at the world level.

Q: Is the Orthodox Church in Greece as concerned as Catholics are about the neglect, for the time being, in the drafts of the European Constitution of the Christian heritage [of the continent]?

Father Bonny: The Greek Orthodox Church is not an isolated Church. It is in the same boat together with the Churches of Europe. It must address the same challenges at the level of the sacramental life, of catechesis, and of pastoral care. At the same time, it is concerned about human and Christian values on which a common future should be constructed.

Q: Are Greece and Christianity an inseparable binomial?

Father Bonny: "Inseparable" would be exaggerated, although Greece is full of references to the first centuries of Christianity. St. Paul preached in the Areopagus of Athens and some of his letters were addressed to Greek communities, such as the Corinthians and the Thessalonians.

How many Greek monasteries go back to the early times of Christian monasticism? The Greek Orthodox Church is conscious of this wonderful patrimony of Christian faith and culture. It wants to transmit it to future generations with a great sense of fidelity.