In Looking Back, Pope Says He Hopes Future Leads to Christian Unity

By Cindy Wooden

Vatican City -- As Pope John Paul II looked back at 2004, important ecumenical events seemed not to satisfy him but to sharpen his desire to lead the way to unity among Christians.

The world's people yearn for unity and Christians have an obligation to ensure that their reconciliation and common commitment to the Gospel will show others the path, Pope John Paul told members of the Roman Curia Dec. 21 during the traditional exchange of Christmas greetings. The pope's speech, usually a summary of the past year in the life of the Catholic Church, contained strong words about ecumenism.

"Dear brothers," he told his closest collaborators, "we are becoming ever more aware that communion with God and unity among all peoples, beginning with believers, is our priority commitment."

"Reconstructing full communion among Christians is urgent," he said.

Even his first words about the Year of the Eucharist focused on ecumenism, because sharing the Eucharist would be the fullest sign that Christians have reconciled and fully profess the same faith.

The Vatican frequently reminds Catholics and other Christians that, even if they feel they share the same faith, in most cases eucharistic sharing is not appropriate before full unity is achieved.

"The celebration of the Year of the Eucharist aims, among other things, at making the thirst for unity stronger, pointing to its unique and inexhaustible source: Christ himself," the pope said.

"We must continue to follow the path toward unity without hesitation," Pope John Paul said.

Many observers view the ecumenical landscape as one strewn with problems: accusations by the Orthodox that Catholics are trying to proselytize in areas of the former Soviet Union; sharpening differences with Protestant churches over moral issues; and hesitation over continuing dialogue with the Anglican Communion while its members try to heal a breach caused by the ordination of an openly gay bishop in the United States and by the decision of some dioceses to bless gay unions.

But Pope John Paul evidently sees the glass as half full.

"We give thanks to God because the ecumenical effort on various levels is intensifying thanks to constant contacts, meetings and initiatives with our brothers and sisters from various Orthodox and Protestant churches and ecclesial communities," the pope said.

In the pope's review of 2004 a definite highlight was the meetings he had in June and in November with Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

During a Nov. 27 ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica, the pope gave the patriarch relics of Sts. Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom. Both saints led the church of Constantinople before the split between the Christian East and West and both are venerated as doctors of the church by Catholics and Orthodox.

The Orthodox believe the relics were stolen from Constantinople -- now Istanbul, Turkey -- in 1204 when mercenaries participating in the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land sacked the city instead.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and dean of the College of Cardinals, also spoke about ecumenism as he thanked the pope Dec. 21 for his leadership.

The brotherhood that existed between the bishops of Constantinople and Rome when St. John Chrysostom and Pope Innocent I reigned "is seen again in the ecumenical encounters between Your Holiness and Patriarch Bartholomew," Cardinal Ratzinger told the pope.

"Even though the pain of separation unfortunately continues," the cardinal said, "we have seen how the fraternity between the two sees not only continues, but is becoming stronger, more real and concrete, Holy Father, thanks to your generous and unceasing commitment."

Remembering another ecumenical gesture in 2004 prompted prayers on the pope's part.

"I hope from the bottom of my heart that the return of the icon of the Mother of God of Kazan to Russia also will contribute to accelerating the unity of all Christ's disciples," Pope John Paul said.

For more than a decade the 18th-century copy of the Marian icon -- which was spirited out of Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution -- had hung over the desk of the pope, who had hoped to deliver it personally. But Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II resisted such a visit.

Instead it was delivered in late August by a Vatican delegation headed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

As they prepared to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, the pope told members of the Curia that their work for unity must continue.

The mission of bringing people to God and to a real relationship of brotherhood with each other comes directly "from the Son of God made man, the light of the peoples," the pope said.