VATICAN CITY, Nov. 27 -- Pope John Paul II on Saturday handed over the bones of two saints to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, in hopes that the gesture will revive talks over unifying Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, two major forces in Christendom.
The saints, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, are venerated as early Christian leaders by the world's 250 million Orthodox believers, but the Vatican had held their relics for centuries.
Pope John Paul II hopes to unify the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, divided since 1054.
(Plinio Lepri -- AP)
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The restitutions exemplified the doggedness of John Paul's efforts to reconcile with Orthodox Christianity and to continue his mission to forge pan-Christian unity. Bartholomew, who is patriarch of Constantinople, had asked for the relics when he visited the Vatican last June.
The two church leaders described the ceremony Saturday as a step forward in Christian unity. In words read on his behalf by an assistant, John Paul described the restitution as a way to "purify our wounded memories" and "strengthen our path to reconciliation." Bartholomew called the return an act of goodwill that repaired an "ecclesiastical injustice" and that the event showed that "no insurmountable problems exist in the Church of Christ."
Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church have been formally divided since 1054, when Pope Leo IX and eastern Patriarch Michael Cerularius excommunicated each other. The two churches had squabbled over rites, the wording of prayers, the use of unleavened bread in the Catholic Eucharist, territory and even the calendar.
Vatican and Orthodox officials said Saturday's handover would be followed by discussions about bridging divisive issues. Chief among them, from the Orthodox point of view, is suspicion that the Roman church is trying to proselytize among Eastern believers, especially in Ukraine and Romania. In both countries, several Eastern church communities have declared themselves "in communion" with Rome, meaning that they retain their own liturgy and practices but accept the authority of the Catholic pontiff.
The Vatican's welcome of these Uniate churches is an irritant to many Orthodox leaders. They regard Uniatism as a breach of the pope's oft-repeated assertion that Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are brothers, not competitors.
"In Orthodox terminology, we are stealing their sheep," said Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Kasper said it was not Roman Catholic policy to lure Orthodox believers, but that the Catholic Church had no choice but to welcome Christians who voluntarily accept Vatican stewardship. "We take seriously the free decision of people to unite with Rome," he said.
Ignatios Sotiriadis, secretary of the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in Athens in charge of questions of inter-Christian relations, said that "proselytizing is an old model for unifying the church."
"Kasper's position is balanced, but we must make sure we live as brothers in fidelity to Christ. There is still a problem of trust," he said.
The last major conference on relations between the two churches, which took place in Baltimore in 2000, was marred by heated arguments including a dispute over Uniate churches. Neither Kasper nor Sotiriadis predicted when new meetings of substance might resume.
The ceremony took place in St. Peter's Basilica, which was packed with Catholic and Orthodox prelates and worshipers. John Paul and Bartholomew sat at the altar above the tomb of St. Peter, the first pope. The relics, visible inside crystal boxes encased by alabaster grating, lay on tables a few steps below the two church leaders. Plumed Swiss Guards stood sentinel, and hymns from a male choir echoed through the massive church. Both the pope and the patriarch kissed the containers, which Vatican ushers ferried between them.
In Istanbul later Saturday, bells rang out in celebration as the remains were carried in a candlelight procession into the Cathedral of St. George, the Associated Press reported. Kasper had said earlier that he would fly to Istanbul on Bartholomew's plane for the ceremony there.
The remains of Gregory Nazianzen were taken to Rome in the 8th century to safeguard them from a wave of attacks on iconography in Constantinople.