Pope Pledges to Mend Orthodox Relations

Pope Benedict XVI (search) pledged Sunday to work to end Roman Catholicism's 1,000-year-old rift with the Orthodox Church, delivering a message of healing on the first trip of his papacy.

Benedict flew by helicopter to the Adriatic port of Bari, home to the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth-century saint popular among both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. The presence of the relics has earned the city a reputation as a religious bridge between East and West.

Theuch-traveled footsteps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

In his homily at a Mass that closed a national religious conference, Benedict referred to Bari as a "land of meeting and dialogue" with the Orthodox Church (search).

"I want to repeat my willingness to make it a fundamental commitment to work, with all my energy, toward reconstituting the full and visible unity of Christ's followers," he said to applause from the estimated 200,000 people at the Mass.

Benedict told worshippers words were not enough, and that even ordinary Catholics needed to make concrete gestures to reach out to Orthodox Christians.

"I also ask all of you to decisively take the path of spiritual ecumenism, which in prayer will open the door to the Holy Spirit who alone can create unity," he said.

In Moscow, Father Vsevolod Chaplin (search), foreign relations chief for the Moscow Patriarchate, said the Russian church welcomed the pope's willingness to forge closer ties with Orthodox Christians. He said the statements "will be followed by real steps to bring our churches closer."

Chaplin told The Associated Press the Russian Orthodox Church is ready to "revitalize the dialogue" with the Roman Catholic Church. But he warned that some differences cannot be solved easily, citing a disagreement over whether the Christian world should be led from one place.

Benedict has said previously that reaching out to the Orthodox and other Christians would be a priority of his papacy.

Benedict's statement Sunday "builds on the legacy" of John Paul, but apparently seeks to push the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue to a new level, said Grant White, the principal at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, Britain.

"The statement was a bit of a surprise," White said. "We knew that the Orthodox were on the pope's agenda someplace, but not so conspicuous and not so soon ... I am encouraged by it."

Benedict's apparent eagerness to travel also was seen as a continuation of John Paul's legacy.

John Paul, the most-traveled pope in history, made 104 foreign pilgrimages and 146 pastoral visits in Italy during his 26-year papacy. He visited Bari in 1984.

Benedict, 78, has said he is looking forward to attending the World Youth Day (search) celebrations in Cologne, in his native Germany, this August — a trip John Paul himself had hoped to make.

Benedict also told residents of Castel Gandolfo, the lakeside papal residence in the hills south of Rome, that he would spend the summer there — an annual outing that is not considered a formal trip because the Vatican owns the palace.

Polish bishops have said they want Benedict to visit John Paul's homeland as well.

Wearing his bishop's miter and white vestments, Benedict blessed the faithful in Bari, many of whom waved the Vatican's yellow and white flag.

Swiss Guards in full regalia stood at attention near the altar. It was the first time in recent history that uniformed Swiss Guards accompanied the pope on a trip inside Italy. Vatican officials said the guards would accompany the pope on Italian trips in the future.

Security in the city was tight, with the town center and seaside boulevard leading to the Mass site closed to regular traffic. Hundreds of police patrolled the streets and coastal waters were closed to private vessels. A navy ship was anchored nearby, officials said.

In his greetings at the start of the Mass, Archbishop Francesco Cacucci of Bari referred to the city's Orthodox ties, saying the arrival of St. Nicholas' bones in 1057 "built a bridge between the East and West that neither time nor divisions have ever demolished."

"Even in these days, many brothers of the Eastern (Orthodox) churches have been united with us, encouraging us to continue with renewed commitment and enthusiasm on the path of prayer and ecumenical dialogue," the archbishop said.

As Benedict headed back to Rome, his helicopter swept low over the south-central town of Duronia so the pope could bless residents gathered on a sports field, the news agency ANSA reported. Mayor Adelmo Berardo had said Saturday the town would get a blessing because the pilot comes from there.