May 12, 2001
POPE REACHES OUT TO THE
ORTHODOX & MUSLIMS
Pope John Paul II
is so frail and stooped that he appears too old to be a leader. Yet in
his recent trip in the steps of St. Paul to Greece, Syria and Malta his
actions and words were courageous and persuasive. Yet he was criticized
by Jewish leaders for what he did not do.
The Polish Pope
grew up on the border between Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church
and developed a great respect for Eastern Christianity. He often refers
to ''Europe that breathes with two lungs, East and West.''
millennium was an era of Christian unity. But there was a split in 1054,
a division between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox churches. Catholic
crusaders sacked the city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1204, an
event which still infuriates the Orthodox. In recent years, Orthodox
leaders have worked in partnership with Communist governments, often
persecuting Catholics. In sharp contrast, western Christians, such as
the Pope as a young bishop, stoutly resisted Polish Communism.
Yet, John Paul's
great millennial hope was that Orthodox and Catholic churches would
''walk toward full unity,'' as he put it back in 1979. His overtures
were greeted with snubs, such as the refusal of Moscow Patriarch Aleksy
II to allow the Pope to come to Russia.
When he flew to
Athens last week, not one Orthodox leader greeted him at the airport.
Archbishop Christodoulos later met with the Pontiff, but read a sharply
worded list of grievances, saying that ''until now there has not been
heard even a single request for pardon'' behalf of the ''maniacal
responded, ''For the occasions past and present when sons and daughters
of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their
Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we
beg of Him.'' He said he hoped to mend Christian divisions which
separated Europe, ''a sin before God and a scandal before the world.''
He offered ''deep regret'' for the mass killings and looting of
moved to applaud, as were other bearded bishops in black. Later he said,
''I am very happy.'' An Orthodox spokesman added, ''This gesture of
love...is very helpful. It will help heal one thousand years of
John Paul then
flew to Syria, where he said came as a pilgrim to Damascus ''to
commemorate the event which took place here 2000 years ago: the
conversion of St. Paul...`who was on his way to oppose and imprison
Christians when he heard a voice, ''Saul, Saul, why do you persecute
me?''' the Pope quoted Acts 9:4-6. Result? ''A profound inner
transformation... From being a persecutor he becomes an apostle.''
John Paul also
was the first Pope to visit an Islamic holy ground, the Umayyad Mosque,
where he built a bridge between the faiths: ''The fact we are meeting in
this renowned place of prayer reminds us that man is a spiritual being,
called to acknowledge and respect the absolute priority of prayer of God
in all things. Christians and Muslims agree that the encounter with God
in prayer is the necessary nourishment of our souls, without which our
hearts wither and our will no longer strives for good but succumbs to
However, when he
arrived at the Damascus airport, President Assad greeted the Pope with a
speech accusing Israel of torturing and murdering Palestinians, and
suggested that Muslims and Christians make common cause against those
''who try to kill the principles of all religions with the same
mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ.''
side-stepped the anti-Semitic charge, giving prepared remarks that in
the Mideast, ''So often hopes for peace have been raised only to be
dashed by new waves of violence.''
Cohen was outraged: ''The ranting of a bigot has gone unrebutted. The
Pope was stoical in his silence. Not so much as a head was lifted, an
eyebrow raised in condemnation. Not for the first time, the church kept
However, the Pope
has never denounced a dictator hosting his visit not Fidel Castro nor
even Poland President Jaruzelski when he was cracking down on
Solidarity. It would be ungracious.
Umayyad Mosque, he expressed his ''ardent hope that Muslim and Christian
religious leaders will present our two great religious communities as
communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in
conflict. It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect
and understanding, so that they will not misuse religion itself to
promote or justify hatred and violence.''
Of course, Assad
had done just that.
Copyright 2001 Michael J.
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