ON A GLORIOUS October day two years ago, Pope John Paul II arrived in Baltimore for a day of worship services and meetings with Roman Catholics and with local religious and civic leaders. The visit generated such good will that it truly became, as Cardinal William H. Keeler had predicted, a ''blessing for Baltimore.''
With the 11-hour visit tomorrow of the religious leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians, Baltimore stands to benefit from the same spirit of fellowship and inspiration.
His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I arrived at Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday for a month-long U.S. tour. He will be visiting Orthodox communities across the country, taking the opportunity to highlight his well-known concern for the spiritual aspects of environmental issues.
Patriarch Bartholomew does not hold the same authority over the world's 14 Orthodox communities that the pope exercises over Roman Catholics. Each of the Orthodox sister churches is self-governing, with its own patriarch or metropolitan. But as archbishop of Constantinople and New Rome, he is regarded as the first among equals, the ''ecumenical patriarch.''
Orthodoxy and Catholicism, the major branches of Eastern and Western Christianity, went their separate ways more than 900 years ago, with mutual excommunications enacted in 1054. But relations began to warm during the 1960s when, with the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII urged the Roman church to begin reaching out to other Christian groups, as well as to non-Christian faiths.
As a result, as the century draws to a close, Orthodox and Catholic Christians can point almost as readily to the things that draw them together as to the differences that distinguish their faith and governance. It is notable that Baltimore owes the honor of Patriarch Bartholomew's visit to an invitation from Cardinal Keeler, reinforced by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. The patriarch's journey will educate many Americans about the Orthodox tradition, a rich, vibrant branch of Christianity.
Orthodoxy has traditionally served as a repository of national cultures in addition to its role as a vehicle for expressing and nourishing religious faith. Even as religious communities in America have retained their hereditary ties to the Russian, Serbian, Greek or other churches of Orthodoxy, they are also seeking ways to adapt to the cultural diversity that is part of the American religious experience.
That process is not always easy.
Some members of the American Orthodox Christian community, wary of giving one patriarch too much power over the larger church, are reluctant to make too much of Patriarch Bartholomew's visit to the United States.
Even so, his presence in this country will help to highlight the majesty of the Orthodox tradition during a time when many Americans are spiritually hungry. As for tomorrow's events -- highlighted by a Service of Prayer and Praise at the Basilica of the Assumption with both the cardinal and the ecumenical patriarch presiding -- we feel certain they, too, will prove a blessing for Baltimore.
Pub Date: 10/22/97