The four-day visit to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican by the Ecumenical Patriarch Batholomew I, from Istanbul, should guide the Roman Catholics of Central Europe and Orthodox Christians of Eastern Europe. This was only the third meeting of a pope and the first among equals of Orthodox primates since the Great Schism of 1054.
It is unlikely they will unify their institutions into a single church by the year 2000, as the pope appears more eager than the patriarch to accomplish. But they have already, as symbolized in joint celebration of Mass, vigorously pushed reconciliation of their two great Christian traditions, building on ecumenical explorations begun in the 1960s.
This movement is important because Europe is a small place still divided and struggling to overcome burdens of history that proximity makes too costly to perpetuate. With European communism dead and freedom of religion restored, the former Iron Curtain remains a division between the historically Catholic and historically Orthodox states.
"We pray for the full realization, without delay, of the European Union, hoping that its borders will be enlarged toward the East," said the most temporal passage in their holiness' joint statement. They are saying that Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and former Soviet republics belong in the same Europe as Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary.
Their friendly coexistence should be noted especially in former Yugoslavia, where both churches were suppressed under communism but reasserted in the name of hostile nationalisms. The difference between a Croatian and a Serb is a difference of inherited religion, not of language. The war of 1991-92 between Croatia and Serbia that threatens to re-explode is fueled by folk memories of religious persecutions.
The 950 million Catholics and 150 million Orthodox, along with Protestant brethren, add up to a Christian minority in the world. Millions of them are close together just north of the Mediterranean Sea. Close enough to witness the civilized discussion of differences and joint celebration of commonality by their spiritual leaders. As 2000 approaches, Christianity in all its strands should be a force for unity and not division of Europe.