Russia and other traditionally Orthodox countries are currently caught up in a fever of concern over Pope John Paul II's visit to Ukraine. The visit, after all, comes at a time of unfriendly relations between the world's largest Christian denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, and the second largest, the Russian Orthodox Church. And this, in the middle of stormy controversy over alleged dishonest proselytizing on the part of Rome and questions over church property changeovers in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The pope's ecclesiastical career has always been marked by a strong streak of activism on the international arena. He is the most widely traveled pope in history. Pope John Paul II has been particularly active in the area of religious rapprochement, reaching out to other religions and Christian denominations in a truly unprecedented way. (This is, after all, the only pope in history who has ever visited a mosque, and has apologized for crimes committed in the name of Christianity a legendary act.) One of the stated goals of his agenda is, in fact, nothing other than the millenium-old dream of reconciling the world's Christian churches, long rent by schism, into a single body.
Understandably, then, the impact this visit to Ukraine carries is of great importance for the pope. What happens will spread shockwaves throughout the Christian world, especially in predominately Orthodox lands. Whether the Catholic and Orthodox churches begin to turn toward one another or continue to keep each other at arms' length depends very much on the outcome of this historic journey.
While many of the Russian patriarch's concerns are grounded in reality especially the expropriation of Orthodox property by Western Ukrainian Uniate Catholics in the early '90s the idea that he has veto power over whether the pope can visit Ukraine is a tad on the silly side. John Paul II was invited to Ukraine by none other than its (admittedly controversial) president, Leonid Kuchma. While no one doubts Patriarch Alexii II's jurisdiction over Orthodox believers in Ukraine, it is in fact a multidenominational country and the patriarch is, after all, a religious, not a political leader. His decisions cannot trump those of a head of state, especially one who heads a country with a sizeable Catholic population.
Also, the Russian patriarch's worries about religious unrest and conflict may well be unjustified. John Paul II recently visited Greece, another bastion of Orthodoxy, without too much in the way of scandal or public censure. He has also visited Romania, an Orthodox country, without the world coming to an end.
For his part, the pope should recognize that he is walking into a very tense and emotionally charged situation. Given that his stated aim is the reconciliation and eventual unification of the various Christian churches, he must be aware that undiplomatic behavior in Ukraine will gall an already unfriendly Russian Orthodox establishment. Given already icy interchurch relations, a further chill might make things downright Antarctic and spell the end of any further fruitful dialogue.
Also, Alexii II should keep in mind one very important thing according to many, it was the pope's activism in the early '80s that accelerated the fall of the atheistic ideology of communism. Without this having taken place, it is highly unlikely that the patriarch would ever have been able to occupy the position he is in now, nor have the power to voice effective disapproval over religious events transpiring in Ukraine. For this reason, if no other, he should be inclined to extend to the pope at least the benefit of the doubt.
For Christians, after all, the integrity and potential unity of the church, not to mention the right to worship and profess their faith, are no trifling matters. Whether one is a professing Catholic or not, one should keep in mind that the meaning of the word "Catholic" "kath' hollou," or "universal" should be dear to the heart of every Christian and, indeed, to every citizen of the world.