On Saturday, John Paul II is scheduled to turn over the relics of the doctors of the Eastern Church to Patriarch Bartholomew I, in an ecumenical ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica. The ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, "first among equals" among the Orthodox, will be in Rome for a two-day visit.
"For us, the significance of this event is very great," said Archimandrite Ignatios Sotiriadis of the Greek Orthodox Church, in statements today to Vatican Radio.
"The return of these relics means that one more bridge is created between the sister Churches of Constantinople and Rome, between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox," he said. The Patriarch of Constantinople is in Istanbul, Turkey.
According to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, when Patriarch Bartholomew I met John Paul II in Rome last June 29, he invited the Pope to Istanbul and asked if the relics of the saints could be returned from the Vatican to the See of Constantinople. The relics have been kept in St. Peter's Basilica.
An exchange of letters between the Pope and the patriarch followed, and this week's meeting will be a result of that correspondence.
"The handing over of the relics," the pontifical council said in a statement, "is a profound encouragement to walk the path of unity: the mortal remains of the two saints, patriarchs of Constantinople, who did everything possible to safeguard unity between East and West, venerated in their land of origin, welcomed with great honors in the Church of Rome, which for many centuries has preserved and venerated them, walk once again on the path to the East, thanks to this gesture of spiritual sharing which nourishes and fortifies communion between the Sees of Peter and Constantinople."
John Paul II has asked that the relics be enclosed in precious alabaster reliquaries.
When they arrive in Istanbul later on Saturday, they will be stored in a chapel of the patriarchate and, on the feast of St. Andrew, Nov. 30, they will be permanently placed in the patriarchal Church of St. George.
Accompanying the patriarch on the plane from Turkey will be Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, and Archbishop Edmond Farhat, apostolic nuncio in Turkey.
On the return trip to Istanbul, to celebrate next Tuesday's feast of St. Andrew, patron of the ecumenical patriarchate, Bartholomew I will be accompanied by a Holy See delegation that will include Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Regarding Catholic-Orthodox relations, Archimandrite Sotiriadis said: "The problem that remains to be surmounted is 'Uniatism.'" This expression refers to Eastern-rite Catholics who live in Eastern European lands of Orthodox majority.
"This problem must be surmounted, but it has been decided that ecumenical dialogue, like theological dialogue, will be resumed after the handing over of these famous relics to the ecumenical patriarch and after the feast of St. Andrew," the archimandrite said.
"Discussions will begin with the Petrine ministry and then the other questions will be addressed," he added. "I believe that our religious leaders, ecclesiastics, our superiors of the Churches have yet to sit down at a round table, perhaps behind closed doors, to discuss a speedy process of rapprochement of the Churches.
"From my point of view, there have been important gestures, photographs have been taken, and gifts have been exchanged. Now, there is need for assessment and also for a more spiritual ecumenism, namely, a grass-roots ecumenism. Now, peoples, priests and parishes and individuals must talk among themselves. It is necessary to become friends and not to speak as diplomats, but as brothers."
The archimandrite said he believes that a future of unity passes through the path traced "by all our Orthodox theologians and all our historians, as well as by famous theologians of the West, of the Catholic Church, such as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who speaks about a unity or reunification according to the historical models of the first millennium."