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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pope Takes First Step Toward Moscow

BUCHAREST, Romania -- Mindful of his advancing years and with a visit to Moscow in mind, Pope John Paul pushed ahead with efforts to break down barriers with Orthodox Christians.

The pope and Romania's Orthodox patriarch embraced and prayed together Sunday, with John Paul declaring that the time had come to put "every form of fear and suspicion" between their churches behind them.

The three-day trip to Romania, the first mainly Orthodox country visited by a Roman pontiff in nearly 1,000 years, was seen as a launching pad for John Paul's ambitious plans f a meeting with the patriarch of Russia, leader of the largest Orthodox church, and a trip to Moscow.

"The first time is always the hardest," papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Sunday. The Romania trip "had more than opened the door" for better relations with Moscow, he said. "It's a breakthrough." But he said there was still nothing concrete on a meeting with Moscow Patriarch Alexy II, who torpedoed a planned meeting with the pope at the last minute two years ago.

In a significant gesture by John Paul, the patriarch announced the pope contributed an unspecified amount of money for construction of a massive Orthodox basilica in Bucharest. Orthodox clergy have frequently accused the Vatican of spending its money to build its own churches and to convert Orthodox believers.

Some 100,000 people filled Union Square in the heart of Bucharest for the Orthodox service, the first such open-air service by the Orthodox church here. Most attending were Orthodox, but there were small groups of Catholics scattered in the crowd.

Later in the day, Patriarch Teoctist attended a Roman Catholic Mass in a park, the pope's last public event before returning to Rome. At least 200,000 people turned out, most coming to Bucharest from the Catholic areas in northern Transylvania.

In his afternoon homily, the pope said that until recently it would have been "unthinkable" for a Roman pontiff to visit Romania. "Today, after a long winter of suffering and persecution, we can finally exchange the embrace of peace and together praise the Lord."

Speaking of efforts to bring Christians closer together, he said, "In the name of this great ecumenical inspiration, I am turning to all those in Romania who believe in Christ."

At the end of the Catholic Mass, John Paul invited the Romanian patriarch Teoctist to visit him at the Vatican. Hearing these words, the crowd responded, shouting repeatedly: "Unity! Unity!"