Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Grief, Unity

The end of ecumenism's peak week saw the passing of key interfaith partners, both at home and beyond.

First, Pope Benedict led tributes to the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, who died yesterday at 69.

Primate of Greece since 1998, Christodoulos made significant strides to improve his branch's relations with the Holy See, becoming the first top Greek hierarch to meet with a Roman pontiff. He received John Paul II on his 2001 visit to Greece, then calling on Benedict for a Roman audience in 2006.

A colorful prelate, wire reports noted that the archbishop was often voted the country's "most popular" public figure, despite his penchant for courting controversy.

In his telegram to the interim head of the Greek church, the Pope praised Christodoulos for "open[ing] a new era of cordial co-operation" between the two churches, "leading to increased contacts and improved friendship in the search for closer communion." In an October message to an Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, the pontiff made special mention of his closeness in prayer to the Greek primate, then in treatment for liver cancer at a Miami hospital.

The spiritual leader of 90% of Greece's 11 million residents, Christodoulos will receive a state funeral on Thursday. His successor will be elected by Greek Orthodoxy's synod of bishops on 7 February.

* * *

In the States, the six million members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are mourning the loss of their top leader, President Gordon Hinckley, who died at 97 Sunday night in the Mormon home base of Salt Lake City.

Revered by the world's 13 million LDS as a modern prophet, Hinckley's 13 years as the church's 15th head saw not only a rapid expansion of its numbers (particularly overseas), but an increased outreach beyond the walls of its temples. While Utah's growing Catholic fold has long enjoyed a solid bond with the state's Mormon majority and their leadership, the current ties of friendship and collaboration between the two are arguably the closest they've ever been.

Under Hinckley, the LDS lent a substantial hand to the restoration of Salt Lake's Cathedral of the Madeleine, and -- often with the deployment of its own volunteers and other aid -- staunchly supported World Youth Day and the other travels of Pope John Paul II, who the president and his faithful admired as a prophet of peace. And along the Tiber, maintaining good relations with the LDS were reportedly a key factor in last year's appointment of a new bishop for Utah's statewide diocese.

A positive-thinking, media-friendly sort almost viewed by journalists as one of their own, the Mormon chief's death was publicly mourned by neighbor-bishops past and present.

In comments to the Salt Lake Tribune, Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco said that "it was a challenge to us to be as open and respectful as they were being to us."

Over his 11 years in Utah, the San Fran prelate recalled that the two communities kept a "harmony of vision and purpose" that he expects will continue under Hinckley's likely successor: his first counselor and heir apparent, 80 year-old Thomas Monson. On Niederauer's 2006 departure for San Francisco, the LDS First Presidency acclaimed the newly-named archbishop as its "faithful friend," "a man of quick wit and good humor, unyielding integrity and immense capacity."

Illness might've kept Hinckley from his commitment to attend Bishop John Wester's installation as Salt Lake's ninth ordinary last year, but the two still formed a friendship of their own. In his statement to the paper, the bishop called the late prophet "a real man of bridge-building. A real man of God.

"He wasn't exclusive, he wasn't insulated," Wester said. "He showed a genuine interest in me personally, and a genuine interest in our church."

Hinckley's funeral is scheduled for Saturday. While masses of mourners are expected to flock to Salt Lake, attendance at the rites is limited to the 21,000-seat capacity of the LDS' Conference Center.

PHOTOS: Reuters/Yiorgos Karahalis(1); Deseret Morning News(2)