by Timothy Elphiek and Viviane Hewitt in Rome
VATICAN negotiations with the Russian Orthodox church and the government of the Soviet Union on the status of the Ukrainian Catholic (Uniate) church have been postponed indefinitely, according to reports this week from Rome.
The move follows the conclusion last Tuesday of John Paul H's historic meeting with 28 Ukrainian bishops in the Vatican, during which it emerged that the Holy See wished to take no further part in talks with the Soviets until the long-awaited law on religious liberty was passed.
Sources close to Archbishop Francesco Colasuonno, the Vatican's newly appointed ambassador to Moscow, said the bill, which is currently before the Soviet parliament, is expected to become law in September.
The Vatican is also known to be concerned that the restoration of Ukrainian Catholic buildings and church assets, confiscated under Stalin in 1946 when the Uniates were forcibly joined with the Orthodox, has not yet been completed. Disputes over property between the Uniate and Orthodox congregations have developed into bitter rows in the Ukraine since the declaration last December that individual parishes should vote on which church to adhere to.
Pope John Paul told the bishops last week that he would assure the Orthodox church of his recognition of their status within the Catholic church. The Uniate church, which acknowledged the authority of Rome in 1596 while maintaining the eastern rite, has been accused by some members of the Orthodox hierarchy of being a church without canonical territories, with no rights and no authority.
In April an official of the Soviet council for religious affairs in Moscow told reporters that the Uniates were not a part of any church "because a church must have bishops". He pointed out that the appointment of Ukrainian Catholic bishops did not take place in Rome, as was normal for the Catholic church.
But the Rome-based head of the Uniates, Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, hoped that "despite the difficult past between our church and the Orthodox and the injustices we have suffered, we are prepared to forgive, forget and begin a new way of living together on the basis of truth, justice and love." And Archbishop Volodymyr Sterniuk, who walked out of negotiations between the two sides last March, expressed a willingness to start again.
There are also indications that the Vatican, which until now has shied away from becoming too involved in the Uniates' struggle with the Orthodox church for fear of damaging improved relations with Mos cow, will take a renewed interest in their cause.
Referring to the Uniate demand that their union with the Orthodox be declared to have been illegal, the Holy See now felt the "necessity" to extend a fraternal invitation to the Orthodox church to acknowledge "the historic truth of events for which our generation is not responsible." But Pope John Paul asked the bishops to wait until their church was legalised before choosing a patriarch from their midst.
At the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral in London, Fr Stephen Oracz said that the Vatican was right to delay substantive talks with the Orthodox church until the position of his church was clear under the law. He said that Orthodox squatters were still occupying St George's cathedral in Lvov, the ancient seat of the Uniates, despite an order from the city council for the building to be handed back to its former congregation.
It was not possible, he said, to negotiate with people who refused to obey even the most justifiable requests.