ALLENTOWN, PA. -- Patriarch Dimitrios I, leader of 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world, visited Ukrainian members of his flock Wednesday.
The bearded patriarch of Constantinople, acknowledged as first among equals by the bishops of about 20 self-governing Orthodox churches, heard a plea from a Ukrainian Orthodox bishop that he continue his efforts to resolve a centuries-old split between Ukrainians loyal to the pope and Ukrainians loyal to the patriarch.
Dimitrios, replying through an interpreter, said he was "in favor of dialogue and truth" and looked forward to the day when Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics would "be together at a common table, drinking from the common cup." Several Catholic prelates, including Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, attended the ceremony.
More than 400 people jammed into St. Mary's Ukrainian Orthodox Church to welcome Dimitrios. About 600 waited for the patriarch outside the red-brick, green-domed church.
A visit from the patriarch is considered as important by Orthodox Christians as a visit from the pope would be by Catholics.
Applause greeted the black-robed patriarch as he stepped from his limousine. Children scattered flower petals before him as he climbed the church steps. Many in the crowd wore elaborately embroidered Ukrainian costumes.
"We're honored by a visit from a man of such importance," said John Sokalsky of Allentown, a member of St. Mary's.
Dimitrios, 75, is on a month-long pastoral visit to the United States, the home of about 6 million Orthodox Christians. The patriarch, known by the title His All Holiness, claims spiritual descent from St. Andrew the Apostle. Tradition holds that St. Andrew brought Christianity to the ancient city of Byzantium, later known as Constantinople and now as Istanbul, in 36 A.D.
A long dispute between Rome and Constantinople came to a peak in 1054 when the pope and the patriarch excommunicated each another.
Inside the ornate church, Dimitrios presided over a prayer service known as a doxology, celebrated in Ukrainian, Greek and English.
The emphasis was on unity and healing rifts, not just between Catholics and Orthodox but among the nearly 20 different Orthodox denominations, which have been established primarily along ethnic lines.
Bishop Vsevolod, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America and Canada, called on the patriarch in an address "to unite your American children.
"We, your spiritual sons and daughters, are in desperate need of your strong patriarchal direction to put off the sibling competitiveness which keeps us disunited," he said.
The patriarch said he prayed that the Orthodox would live in peace and union with one another and with all humanity.
The Orthodox-Catholic division among Ukrainian Christians, which dates to the end of the 16th century, reflects the older split between the Eastern and Western churches, Vsevolod said.
Vsevolod told Patriarch Dimitrios that he looked forward to a day when Ukrainians would be "in full communion with Rome and Constantinople. As our division has been a sign of enmity and a stumbling block, we pray and ask that we may be given the priceless gift of unity, to be a sign of love and hope for the whole church."
The patriarch is scheduled to leave the United States on July 29.