For the first time in history representatives of the Anglican and Orthodox churches have participated in a key ceremony in Rome marking an official Catholic jubilee year. The year 2000 has been designated by the Vatican as a jubilee year, a time of special importance for Catholics which includes the granting of special "indulgences"—remission of the penalty for sin to be served in Purgatory after death. The jubilee, or "Holy Year" as it is sometimes known, is celebrated once every 25 years.

However, some leading international Protestant organizations pointedly abstained from the ceremony, mainly over the controversial issue of indulgences. And there was criticism of the event within some of the Protestant churches that sent officials to Rome for the jubilee event.

Jubilee years include special ceremonies for the opening of doors at four basilicas in Rome. Pope John Paul II has already—over the past month—opened three of the doors at St Peter's Basilica, St John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore. These special doors remain closed between jubilee years.

Yesterday's opening at St Paul's outside the Walls, where, according to tradition the remains of the Apostle Paul are buried, coincided with the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and was intended to signal the Pope's wish to heal the divisions within Christianity. Representatives of 22 of the world's major churches, and of the World Council of Churches, of which more than 330 churches are members, also attended the ceremony. Many commentators stressed that such widespread participation in an event in Rome was unprecedented.

Of particular symbolic significance was the role played by two Anglican and Orthodox representatives—Dr George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world-wide Anglican Communion, and Metropolitan Athanasios of Helioupolis and Theira, representing Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople. Together with Pope John Paul, the two leaders pushed open the "holy door" of St Paul's. Never before—in the 700 years since Rome began celebrating jubilee years—has this event been shared in this way with non-Catholic churches.

In another major gesture to church unity, the service that followed included readings from the works of a Russian Orthodox theologian, George Florovsky, and from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German, Lutheran pastor and theologian hanged by the Gestapo in 1945. In the sermon that followed, Pope John Paul asked: "How is it possible that, despite their fundamental unity in their baptism in Christ, Christians are so divided?" He ended his homily with the words: "Dear brothers and sisters, my wish in this solemn moment is that this year of grace 2000 become for all of Christ's disciples an opportunity to give a new boost to ecumenical efforts. … I remember that in May 1999 in Bucharest, during a service at which I presided in the presence of Romanian Orthodox Patriarch Teoctist, the people—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant—shouted: 'Unity, unity'.

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"Representatives of many Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches were among those present, along with officials from the Lutheran World Federation, the Old Catholic Churches, the World Methodist Council, the Disciples of Christ, and other churches.

However, some critics pointed out to Ecumenical News International (ENI) that the two most important Orthodox leaders—Patriarch Bartholomeos, the primus inter pares (first among equals) of Orthodox leaders, and Patriarch Alexei, of Moscow, head of the biggest Orthodox church, the Russian Orthodox Church, did not attend in person, but sent representatives.

The Baptist World Alliance, which represents 43 million Christians in 196 Baptist conventions and unions around the world, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), which represents more than 75 million Christians in Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Reformed and United Churches, did not send representatives to the jubilee event.

Within Italy itself, the jubilee and yesterday's event have been controversial. Norbert Denecke, of the Lutheran Church in Italy, attended the ceremony, accompanying Bishop Christian Krause, president of the Lutheran World Federation. But other Protestant churches in Italy were not represented.

This follows criticism by local Protestants in Italy of what they see as the Vatican's monopoly of Christian celebrations for the millennium and Vatican pronouncements on indulgences for the jubilee year.

Domenico Tomasetto, president of the Federation of Italian Protestant Churches, told NEV, an Italian Protestant news agency: "Hardly any of the Protestant community in Italy participated in the opening of the 'holy door' of St Paul's Basilica, mindful of the fact that if it is true that Christ is the door to forgiveness, this forgiveness is open to us every day. The time of forgiveness is not controlled by any church authority, but is at the heart of the Gospel which is never closed to us."

At WARC's headquarters in Geneva, spokesperson Paraic Reamonn told ENI: "The alliance formally withdrew in March 1999 from the Vatican-sponsored central committee for the jubilee year."

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Like many Protestant communions, WARC warmly welcomed the new relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches opened up by Vatican II. We have been engaged for many years in official bilateral dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. This will continue.

"However," Reamonn said, "we felt that John Paul II's Bull [official document] declaring a jubilee indulgence made it impossible for us as a Reformed alliance to take part in jubilee celebrations organized by the Vatican."

The sixteenth-century Reformation—to which most of our member churches trace their origins—was sparked by the issue of indulgences and the practice of indulgences is, in our view, incompatible with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith."The Rome correspondent of the Guardian newspaper in London reported that Pope John Paul "exuded spontaneity, agility and joy not seen for years" in yesterday's historic ceremony. The Pope gave "a bravura performance which astonished observers who expected a shuffling, ailing pontiff," the reporter said.The newspaper's comments follow controversy in the media, particularly in Italy, over whether the Pope should or is planning to retire because of poor health. In the latest development, the National Catholic Reporter in the United States has reported that the Pope may have written a resignation letter to be activated if he becomes senile.

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