Pope Benedict Pledges to Mend Orthodox Rift

By NICOLE WINFIELD

Associated Press

May 29, 2005

BARI, Italy — Pope Benedict XVI visited this eastern Italian port on his first papal trip Sunday and pledged to make healing the 1,000-year-old rift with the Orthodox church a "fundamental" commitment of his papacy.

Benedict made the pledge in a city closely tied to the Orthodox church. Bari, on Italy's Adriatic coast, is considered a "bridge" between East and West and is home to the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century saint who is one of the most popular in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Benedict referred to Bari as a "land of meeting and dialogue" with the Orthodox in his homily at a Mass that closed a national conference on the Eucharist. It was his first pilgrimage outside Rome since being elected the 265th leader of the Roman Catholic Church on April 19.

"I want to repeat my willingness to assume as a fundamental commitment working to reconstitute the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ, with all my energy," he said to applause from the estimated 200,000 people at the Mass.

Words aren't enough, he said, adding that "concrete gestures" were needed even from ordinary Catholics to reach out toward the Orthodox.

"I also ask all of you to decisively take the path of spiritual ecumenism, which in prayer will open the door to the Holy Spirit who alone can create unity," he said.

A top official with the Russian Orthodox Church -- the largest branch of Orthodox Christianity -- praised the call for unity but expressed caution, saying it should be followed by concrete actions and warning of differences that cannot be bridged easily.

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, who is in charge of foreign relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, told The Associated Press the Russian church was "thankful" for the pope's expression of commitment to closer ties with Orthodox Christians and hoped it "will be followed by real steps to bring our churches closer."

Benedict has said previously that reaching out to the Orthodox and other Christians would be a priority of his papacy, and his call to ordinary Catholics to take the charge as well built on that agenda.

Although a brief, three-hour visit, the trip was Benedict's inaugural pastoral pilgrimage and showed he was following in the much-traveled footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The most-traveled pope in history, John Paul made 104 foreign pilgrimages and 146 pastoral visits in Italy during his 26-year papacy. John Paul visited Bari in 1984.

Benedict, 78, has said he is looking forward to attending the World Youth Day celebrations in Cologne, in his native Germany, this August -- a trip John Paul had hoped to make himself.

He also has told residents of Castel Gandolfo, the lakeside papal residence in the hills south of Rome, that he would spend the summer months there. The Holy See distinguishes between pastoral visits to Italian cities and visits to Castel Gandolfo, which is Vatican property.

Polish bishops have said they also want Benedict to visit the late pope's homeland.

Benedict flew by helicopter to Bari, near the "heel" of boot-shaped Italy, and waved to the crowds from a white "popemobile," before celebrating the seaside, open-air Mass.

Wearing his bishop's miter and white vestments with Swiss Guards standing at attention at the foot of the altar area, Benedict blessed the faithful, many of whom waved the Vatican's yellow and white flags or white baseball caps handed out by organizers to shield them from the sun.

Security was tight, with the town center and seaside boulevard leading to the Mass site closed to regular traffic. Hundreds of police patrolled the streets, coastal waters were closed to private vessels and the Italian navy ship San Giusto was anchored nearby, officials said.

In his greetings at the start of the Mass, Archbishop Francesco Cacucci of Bari referred to the city's Orthodox ties, saying the arrival of St. Nicholas' bones in 1057 "built a bridge between the East and West that neither time nor divisions have ever demolished."

"Even in these days, many brothers of the eastern churches have been united with us, encouraging us to continue with renewed commitment and enthusiasm on the path of prayer and ecumenical dialogue," the archbishop said.

In a bid to improve relations, the Vatican's top ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, proposed this week at the Bari conference to hold a synod, or meeting of Catholic and Orthodox bishops, news reports said.

Chaplin said the Russian Orthodox Church is "always ready to continue and revitalize our dialogue" with the Roman Catholic Church, but he cautioned there remained "theological differences that cannot be solved easily or very quickly."

Ties between the Vatican and the Russian Orthodox Church have been strained in recent years amid accusations by the Russian church that the Catholic Church is poaching souls on its traditional territory. John Paul had hoped to make a historic visit to Russia during his lifetime, but Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II made it clear that he was not welcome.

During Benedict's return trip to Rome on Sunday, his helicopter swept low over the south-central town of Duronia so he could bless residents gathered on a sports field, the Italian news agency ANSA reported from Campobasso, a provincial capital 20 miles away.

The town's mayor, Adelmo Berardo, said the helicopter pilot was from Duronia.