ROME (RNS)--Pope John Paul II wrote a new chapter in the history of ecumenism Tuesday by opening the Holy Door of a major Roman basilica together with an Orthodox metropolitan and the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury.

Then, in a dramatic and unscripted gesture expressing their wish for unity, the two representatives of churches separated from Rome since the 11th and 16th century kneeled in silent prayer on either side of the pope at the threshold of the great Byzantine door of the Basilica of St. Paul's-Without-the-Walls.

"Welcome to this encounter, which marks a step forward toward the unity of the spirit in which we have been baptized," the Roman Catholic pontiff said. "Christ, who leads to reconciliation, to peace and to unity, is the door of our salvation."

John Paul addressed delegations from 23 Christian communions assembled in the basilica for an historic liturgical celebration at the start of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Vatican officials said it was the largest ecumenical gathering since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

It also was the first time since the church began celebrating Holy Years seven centuries ago that a pope has himself opened the Holy Door of St. Paul's and the first time he has shared such a ceremony with prelates of other Christian churches.

For the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 launching the third millennium of Christianity, John Paul has opened the Holy Doors of all four major basilicas at the Vatican and in Rome--St. Peter's, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major, as well as St. Paul's.

The Holy Doors are open only during Holy Years, normally called by a pope every 25 years. Pilgrims receive a plenary indulgence--or full remission of temporal punishment for sins--when they enter the basilicas through the Holy Doors to pray.

Metropolitan Athanasios of Helioupolis and Theira, representing Bartholomew I, ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul) and spiritual leader of the world's Christian Orthodox churches, and George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, flanked the pope at St. Paul's 11th century bronze and silver Holy Door, forged in Constantinople in 1070.

"This is the Lord's own door," the pope intoned. "Where the just may enter," responded the congregation of more than 12,000 people, including 25 cardinals and scores of archbishops, bishops, priests and nuns.

As the pope kneeled, the choir and congregation sang, "Christ yesterday and today, the End and the Beginning: Christ Alpha and Omega. To him be glory through every age forever."

The ritual had called for John Paul to kneel alone at the threshold, but first Carey and then Athanasios dropped to their knees to join him in prayer.

The ailing 79-year-old pontiff, wearing a cape of gold brocade lined in orange silk, walked unaided down the long aisle of the church and spoke in a strong, clear voice during the two-hour service.

John Paul has made ecumenical dialogue a priority of his pontificate. On Sunday, looking toward the Tuesday service, the pope said: "We will ask pardon of God and of each other for the sins committed against the unity of the church and, at the same time, we will offer thanks for the path to reconciliation we have covered, especially in the last century."

"The wish that gushes from my heart," the pope said in his homily, "is that in the not distant future Christians, finally reconciled, may again walk together as one people, obedient to the design of the father."

Each of the representatives sitting in a wide semicircle in front of the altar rose after the homily to exchange the sign of peace with the pope and among themselves.

In other ecumenical gestures during the service, an Orthodox deacon carried the Gospels, and there were readings from the works of two eminent non-Catholic theologians--Russian Orthodox George Florovski, who died in Princeton, N.J., in 1973, and German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was put to death by the Nazis in 1945.

Orthodox prelates attending the service in addition to Athanasios included representatives of the Greek Orthodox patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, the Russian, Serb, Romanian, Greek, Polish, Albanian and Finnish Orthodox patriarchates, the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Catholicosate (patriarchate) of Cilicia and the Assyrian Church of the East.

Representatives of Reformed, or Protestant, churches in addition to Carey included Archbishop Antonius J. Glazemaker of the Old Catholic-Union of Utrecht Church; Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World Federation; the Rev. Frances Alguire, president of the World Methodist Council; the Rev. Richard L. Hamm, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Pentecostal leader Cecil M. Robeck Jr., and Bishop Jonas Jonson of the World Council of Churches.

Together they represent about 80 percent of Christianity.

Those absent included the Protestant Waldensian Church of Italy and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, which have refused to take part in Holy Year celebrations to protest the granting of indulgences, a key issue in the 16th century Protestant Reformation.

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