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May 12, 2001
Column #1028


     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.''

     The first 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 crusaders.''

     The Pope 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 Constantinople. 

     Christodoulos was moved to applaud, as were other bearded bishops in black. Later he said, ''I am very happy.'' An Orthodox spokesman added, ''This gesture of very helpful. It will help heal one thousand years of mistrust.''

     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 evil.''

     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.'' 

     John Paul 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.'' 

     Columnist Richard 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 its counsel.''

     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. 

     However, at 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. McManus.

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