( November 9, 1979) John Paul II has taken personal charge of the Vatican's ostpolitik -- the whole complex web of relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the pontificate of Pope Paul VI the complaint of the East European bishops was that the Vatican did not understand their problems, acted above their heads and showed insufficient resolution in dealing with the communists. It was also charged that the Vatican was so anxious to come to terms with the Russian Orthodox church that it was prepared to sacrifice the Uniates of Ukraine and the Catholics of Lithuania.
None of these charges can be made to stick now that there is a Polish pope. John Paul has acted vigorously and decisively on all the fronts opened to him.
Administratively, he has set up a Polish section in the Secretariat of State. With a Polish pope, this became essential if only for translation reasons, but it also means closer attention to wider East European affairs. Secondly, the new No. 2 in the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church (in effect the foreign ministry) is Msgr. Andryas Backis, a Lithuanian whose father was the last ambassador of independent Lithuania to the United States. This appointment is not calculated to endear John Paul to the Soviets. But, once again, it means that the problems of Catholics in the Soviet Union will not be forgotten.
John Paul, moreover, wrote a soothing letter ( March 19, 1979) to Cardinal Giuseppe Slipyj who had been fulminating for years against the Vatican's Ostpolitik as practiced by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. The letter was a warm commendation of the Uniates and an assertion of their rights to religious liberty. The controverted points -- the status of the Ukrainian synod and the claim to the title of patriarch -- were not mentioned, but clearly the Ukrainians are going to get a more favorable hearing in the future.
Whether cause and effect, it is not possible to say, but the Roman Catholic/Orthodox meeting scheduled for Odessa at the end of April was canceled, said Moscow, "because of organizational difficulties." The Uniates have always been a source of friction between Moscow and Rome.