ECUMENICAL MEETING AT THE GREEK-ORTHODOX CATHEDRAL
ADDRESS OF JOHN PAUL II
Saturday, 5 May 2001
Your Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius
Your Holiness Patriarch Zakka
Venerable Bishops and Representatives of the Churches
and Ecclesial Communities of Syria,
1. "When he came and saw the grace of God, [Barnabas] was glad; and he exhorted them all to
remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose" (Acts 11:23-24). Such was the joy and
amazement of the Apostle in Antioch, where he had been sent by the Church in Jerusalem. Today I
share his joy and make my own his exhortation. This visit to Syria takes me back to the dawn of the
Church, to the time of the Apostles and the first Christian communities. It concludes my pilgrimage
in the Biblical lands which I began in the year 2000. It also provides the happy occasion to meet
with you in Syria and to return the visits which you have made to the Church of Rome and to its
In this Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, I greet most especially Patriarch Ignatius IV
Hazim. Your Beatitude, I thank you whole-heartedly for your fraternal welcome today and for this
Liturgy of the Word which it is our joy to celebrate together. Your Beatitudeís interest and active
involvement in the cause of Christian unity is known to all. It is something which I deeply appreciate
and for which I thank God. Beloved Brother, I invoke the Lordís blessing upon your ministry and
upon the Church of which you are the Pastor.
2. Built upon the foundation of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the Church in Syria was quick to show
an extraordinary flourishing of the Christian life. With good reason, the Council of Nicea recognized
the primacy of Antioch over the metropolitan Churches of the region. As we think particularly of
Ignatius of Antioch, John Damascene and Simeon Stylites, how can we fail to recall as well the
many confessors and martyrs of this region who adorned the beginnings of the Church by their
fidelity to Godís grace, even to the point of shedding their blood! How many monks and nuns
withdrew into solitude, filling the deserts and mountains of Syria with hermitages and monasteries, in
order to live lives of prayer and sacrifice, praising God so that in this way they might, in the words
of Theodore of Edessa, "attain to the state of beauty" (Discourse on Contemplation). How many
Syrian theologians helped to establish the theological schools of Antioch and Edessa! How many
missionaries left Syria to go to the East, following the great missionary movement to Mesopotamia
and further still to Kerala in India. Is not the Church of the West greatly indebted to the many
pastors of Syrian origin who assumed the ministry of Bishop there, even the ministry of the Bishop
of Rome? May God be praised for the witness and the influence of the ancient Patriarchate of
Unfortunately, the unity of the illustrious Patriarchate of Antioch was lost through the centuries, and
we must hope that the different Patriarchates existing now will once again find the path that will lead
to full communion.
3. Between the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Patriarchate a process of
ecumenical rapprochement has begun, and for this I thank the Lord with all my heart. It is prompted
by the desire of the Christian people, by dialogue between theologians, and by fraternal cooperation
between the Bishops and pastors of the two Patriarchates. I urge all those involved to pursue this
quest for unity with courage and prudence, with respect but without confusion, drawing from the
Divine Liturgy the sacramental strength and theological stimulus which are needed in the process.
The quest for unity between the Greek Orthodox and the Greek Catholic Patriarchates of Antioch
is clearly part of the wider process of reunion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox
Churches. That is why I reaffirm my sincere desire that the Mixed International Commission for
Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches may soon be
able to continue its work in the most appropriate way. The more this dialogue touches upon central
questions, the more demanding it will become. This is no cause for surprise, and still less an excuse
for lethargy. Who can stop us from placing our hope in the Spirit of God who does not cease to
kindle holiness among the disciples of Christís Church? I wish to thank most sincerely Patriarch
Ignatius IV for the positive and effective contribution which the Patriarchate of Antioch and its
representatives have constantly made to this process of theological dialogue. I am likewise grateful
to Patriarch Gregory III and his predecessor Patriarch Maximos V for their unfailing contribution to
the climate of fraternity and understanding, which is so necessary if the dialogue is to develop well.
4. In the same spirit of gratitude and hope, I would like to mention the deepening of fraternal
relations between the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate and the Syrian Catholic Patriarchate. I greet
especially Patriarch Zakka I, in whom the Catholic Church has always found a faithful promoter of
Christian unity, ever since the Second Vatican Council which he attended as an observer. Your
Holiness, since your visit to Rome in 1984 it has been our joy to be able to make real progress on
the road to unity, having confessed together Jesus Christ as our Lord, true God and true man. On
the same occasion, we were able to authorize a plan of pastoral cooperation, notably at the level of
sacramental life, in cases where the faithful have no access to a priest of their own Church. With the
Syro-Malankar Church in India, which looks to your Patriarchal authority, the Catholic Church has
equally good relations. I beg the Lord that the day will soon come when there will be an end to the
final obstacles to full communion between the Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church.
5. In the course of time, and especially at the start of the twentieth century, Armenian, Chaldean and
Assyrian communities, forced by violence to leave their homelands, came to the Christian quarters
of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and other parts of this region. In Syria they found refuge, a place of
security and peace. I give thanks to the Lord God for the hospitality offered by the Syrian people
on a number of occasions to Christians of the region suffering persecution. Transcending all ecclesial
divisions, such hospitality became the pledge of an ecumenical rapprochement. In the person of the
persecuted brother the Christ of Good Friday was recognized and welcomed.
Since then, by conviction and by necessity, the Christians of Syria have learnt the art of sharing
hospitality and friendship. Ecumenical contact at the level of families, children, young people and the
leaders of society holds the promise of the future of evangelization in this country. It will be up to
you, Bishops and pastors, to accompany this happy process of rapprochement and communication
with wisdom and courage. The cooperation of all Christians, whether at the level of social and
cultural life, in promoting peace, or in the education of the young, is a clear indication of the degree
of communion already existing between them (cf. Ut Unum Sint, 75).
By virtue of the apostolic succession, the priesthood and the Eucharist unite in very close bonds our
particular Churches who call each other, and love to call each other, Sister Churches (cf. Unitatis
Redintegratio, 14). "For centuries, we lived this life of ĎSister Churchesí, and together held
Ecumenical Councils which guarded the deposit of faith against all corruption. And now, after a long
period of division and mutual misunderstanding, the Lord is enabling us to discover ourselves as
ĎSister Churchesí once more, in spite of the obstacles which were once raised between us. If today,
on the threshold of the third millennium, we are seeking the re-establishment of full communion, it is
for the accomplishment of this reality that we must work and it is to this reality that we must refer"
(Ut Unum Sint, 57).
6. Just a few weeks ago, we had the great joy of being able to celebrate the Feast of Easter on the
same day. For me, this happy coincidence in the year 2001 was a pressing invitation of Providence,
addressed to all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities, to return without delay to a common
celebration of the Paschal Feast, the Feasts of all feasts, the central mystery of our faith. Our people
rightly insist that the celebration of Easter should no longer be a cause of division. Since the Second
Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has shown herself favorable to every effort to re-establish
the common celebration of the Paschal Feast. Yet this process seems more difficult than anticipated.
Is it perhaps necessary to envisage intermediate or gradual stages, in order to prepare minds and
hearts for the implementation of an arrangement acceptable to all Christians of East and West? It
falls to the Patriarchs and Bishops of the Middle East to assume together this responsibility with
regard to their communities in the various countries of the region. From the Middle East there could
be born and go forth a new energy and inspiration on this point.
7. A few weeks from now, we shall celebrate together the Feast of Pentecost. Let us pray that the
Holy Spirit "will stir all the disciples of Christ to desire and to work for the peaceful union of all in
one flock under one Shepherd, in the way decreed by Christ" (Lumen Gentium, 15). Let us
implore the Spirit to make us grow in holiness, for there is no lasting unity which is not based upon
humility, conversion and pardon, and therefore upon sacrifice.
When the Spirit came upon the Apostles at Pentecost, the Virgin Mary was there in their midst.
May her example and her protection help us to listen together to what the Spirit is saying to the
Churches, even today, and to welcome his words with confidence and joy!