Ecumenism in the Pontificate of John Paul II

Author: Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir


Cardinal Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir
Patriarch of Antioch for Maronites


Most Holy Father,
Venerable Brothers,
My dear Friends,

When our venerable Dean, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote to me requesting that I review ecumenism and interreligious dialogue during the Pontificate of His Holiness Pope John Paul II, I knew he was doing me a great honour. Nor did I doubt that every honour is a heavy burden as the Latin proverb aptly says: honor onus. Consequently, as I present my most cordial congratulations to our Holy Father on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of his glorious, exceptional Pontificate, and thank God for giving his Church such a worthy common Father to the faithful, I hope that this venerable areopagus will not fail to show me its indulgence.

In my overview, I will, of course, take as guide His Holiness' Encyclicals, Homilies, Declarations and the Addresses he has given at meetings with representatives of different religions during his Pastoral Visits throughout the world, which now number more than 100.

Part One

John Paul II and Ecumenism

I. Unity is what Christ desired

Christian unity was Christ's dearest desire. He expressed it in his last testament as he walked toward his tragic destiny: the Cross. He prayed in his priestly prayer "that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me".1

So, Christian unity is a condition if the world is to believe. The Lord himself said so. That is why the divisions of Christians are a serious scandal, a stumbling block for non-Christians. The Second Vatican Council highlighted this at the very beginning of the Decree on Ecumenism when it said: "Certainly, such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world and damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature".2 John Paul II already felt this deeply as Father of the faithful at the time when he acceded to the throne of Peter. And it is this that has impelled him to work tirelessly for this unity, so deeply desired by Christ. "To believe in Christ", he says, "means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father's plan from all eternity. This is the meaning of Christ's prayer: Ut Unum Sint".3

Far more, the ecumenical movement must be part of this context of the Church's mission, which consists in bringing the Gospel to the world. Unity and mission are inseparable. Were not the Lord's last words before he left this earth to join his Father: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"? After all, we have "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all".4 The inability to share the same Eucharist is a gaping wound that causes immense suffering.

According to John Paul II, "The entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern".5 And he adds: "Thus, it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of 'appendix' which is added to the Church's traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature".6

Canon Law, both Western and Eastern, also makes it an obligation for Christians to help further this unity. The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches states: "The Eastern Catholic Churches are specially responsible for encouraging unity among all the Eastern Churches, first of all by prayer, by the example of life, by religious fidelity with regard to the ancient traditions of the Oriental Churches, by collaboration and fraternal esteem for things and spirits" (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, c. 903).

II. Action to promote Ecumenism

1. Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity

Since his election, Pope John Paul II has encouraged the Secretariat for Unity, created after the Second Vatican Council and which, in 1988 during his Pontificate, became the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. This Council has played and continues to play an important role in encouraging the unity of Christians. On the one hand, it helps to apply the Second Vatican Council's teaching on ecumenism in the Catholic Church and to spread the ecumenical spirit; on the other, it serves the Bishops' Conferences and Bishops in everything that has to do with unity.

In 1967, the Secretariat for Unity published the Ecumenical Directory with a view to providing practical methods to bring about this unity. In 1993, the Pontifical Council published the Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms of Ecumenism, a revised edition of the earlier Directory. The Council also publishes a journal: the Information Service, with three issues per year, that is a font of information on everything that concerns ecumenism. It regularly publishes the Holy Father's Addresses that have a bearing on ecumenism and the declarations of the leaders of non-Catholic Ecclesial Communities.7 The Pontifical Council maintains close relations with a large number of non-Catholic Churches, in particular with the World Council of Churches and other international organizations that deal with the issue of Christian unity. The Council has initiated quite a fruitful international dialogue with almost all the non-Catholic Churches and Ecclesial Communities, which has led to certain bilateral agreements.

It is possible to classify the Catholic Church's partners in ecumenical dialogue, as was done in a special issue of the Information Service, into five categories. These are primarily the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Moscow, Romania, Georgia and the Autocephalous Church of Greece. Then come the Eastern Orthodox Churches: the Patriarchal Coptic Church, the Ethiopian, Syrian and Malankara Churches and the Armenian Church known as the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin, the Catholicosate of Cilicia based in Lebanon, and the Assyrian Church of the East. In third place come the Churches and Ecclesial Communities of Western origin: the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation, the Alliance of the Reformed Churches, The World Methodist Council, the World Baptist Alliance, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Pentecostals and the Evangelicals. Fourthly, there are the international Interconfessional Organizations and fifthly, Judaism. We can say that dialogue with these Churches or Ecclesial Communities has reached a fairly advanced stage. Its aim for the Church is the achievement of the visible unity of the Church and full communion in the apostolic faith and in sacramental life. Some of the Catholic Church's partners, such as the Orthodox, the Anglicans, the Methodists and the Lutheran Federation, think along the same lines.8

2. Prayer is a priority

The Catholic Church, through the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, fosters relations with the World Council of Churches of which she is not a member. She has had annual meetings with this Council and keeps in touch as the need arises. Since the 1960s, they have worked together to prepare the texts for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that takes place every year from 18 to 25 January. They also exchange personnel in different areas, all due to the fact that their cooperation in the field of ecumenism has advanced.

There is no doubt that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has made them aware of the gravity of their divisions. It has convinced them that prayer alone can overcome prejudices, change hearts, make attitudes flexible and bring about reconciliation, without which no one can claim to be a disciple of Christ. Did not Jesus say: "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."?

Luigi Accattoli, author of the book Quand un Pape Demande Pardon (When a Pope Asks Forgiveness), says that John Paul II has publicly put Christ's recommendation into practice almost 100 times regarding questions ranging from the Inquisition to the unjust treatment of women. And he did something unheard of in the past by admitting the Church's guilt despite certain objections or reticence expressed by various people in some Catholic circles.9

3. Ecumenism and conversion

Citing the Second Vatican Council's Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, John Paul says in his Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint: "This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and can rightly be called 'spiritual ecumenism'". And he adds, "Love builds communion between individuals and between Communities. If we love one another, we strive to deepen our communion and make it perfect".10 "There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart".11

4. Ecumenical dialogue

After prayer comes dialogue in its different forms. Ecumenical dialogue "is an indispensable step along the path towards human self-realization, the self-realization both of each individual and of every human community.... Dialogue is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an exchange of gifts'". But, "when undertaking dialogue, each side must presuppose in the other a desire for reconciliation, for unity in truth".12

Furthermore, "ecumenical dialogue is marked by a common quest for truth, particularly concerning the Church.... If on the one hand, dialogue depends on prayer, so, in another sense, prayer also becomes the ever more mature fruit of dialogue .... Dialogue also serves as an examination of conscience".13

Far more, this dialogue becomes a dialogue of conversion, or a "dialogue of salvation". "It... creates in brothers and sisters living in Communities that are not in full communion with one another the interior space where Christ, the source of the Church's unity, can effectively act with all the power of his Spirit, the Paraclete".14

"Dialogue is also a natural instrument for comparing differing points of view and, above all, for examining those disagreements which hinder full communion between Christians". It requires: "love for truth, with charity and with humility", in "searching together with the separated brothers and sisters into the divine mysteries".15 Then comes cooperation among all Christians which "vividly expresses that bond which already unites them, and... sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant". As the Conciliar Degree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio states: "Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth [n. 12]".16

5. Ecumenical Formation

The Ecumenical Directory insists on ecumenical formation by stressing the need for it and its goal, and recommending adaptation to people's concrete situations, means and suitable milieux. It insists on the formation of those who work in pastoral ministry, especially ordained ministers. It demonstrates the importance of specialized training in dialogue, the role of Catholic universities, specialized ecumenical institutes and the need for continuing formation. It specifically states: "It is right to make the most of different kinds of spiritual encounters to deepen knowledge of elements of spirituality that are shared and those that are specific".17

6. Holy Father, Pilgrim of Ecumenism

For John Paul II, ecumenism is a definitive commitment made by the Catholic Church. He has assured all the representatives of the Church and the Ecclesial Communities of "his firm determination to advance on the path of unity... and not to stop before reaching this goal... which is the unity that Christ desired for his Church". "The commitment of the Catholic Church to the ecumenical movement solemnly proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council is irreversible". And even more, for the Pope, "ecumenism" is at the heart of the Church: "It is a pastoral priority that the Church cannot give up".18

Making personal contact with the different Church or Community leaders has always been on the programme of John Paul II's Pastoral Visits. He has made long journeys that have taken him to nearly all the countries of the world. He was very pleased to meet one or other religious leaders, as he has expressed in some of his Encyclicals. He did not fail to mention one or other of these Visits in his Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint, published in 1995. In it he says: "With regard to the Church of Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the process which we have just mentioned began thanks to the mutual openness demonstrated by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI on the one hand, and by the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I and his successors on the other. The resulting change found its historical expression in the ecclesial act whereby 'there was removed from memory and from the midst of the Churches' the remembrance of the excommunications which 900 years before, in 1054, had become the symbol of the schism between Rome and Constantinople".19

The Holy Father also recalls the meeting between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I in Jerusalem, a meeting to which, as a Bishop-elect, I accompanied Cardinal Patriarch Méouchi, my predecessor. Then, two years later, Paul VI and Athenagoras again exchanged visits, and I also had the honour of attending in 1964. And two years after he was elected to the throne of Peter, John Paul II met Patriarch Athenagoras' successor, Dimitrios I, at the Phanar Dialogue between the Catholic Church and all the Orthodox Churches in canonical communion with the See of Constantinople. The two Churches began the practice of sending delegations to visit each other to represent them: from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to Rome for the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and from the Holy See to the Phanar for the Feast of St Andrew.20

On this topic, John Paul II mentions two important events for ecumenism: the Jubilee of 1984 to celebrate the 11th centenary of the evangelization carried out by Cyril and Methodius, Co-Patrons of Europe, and the proclamation of St Benedict as Patron of Europe with them. Indeed, there is an ongoing dialogue between the two Churches: that of the West and that of the East.21

Ecumenism is integrated into the daily ministry of John Paul II. He mentions it in his Declarations, in his General Audiences on Wednesdays, in reciting the Sunday Angelus, during the Bishops' ad limina visits as well as in receiving guests from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities at Private Audiences, and in the Letters accrediting new ambassadors to the Holy See.

On 9 May 1999, during a solemn Eucharistic concelebration in Romania, in the presence of Patriarch Teoctist, he ended his Homily by entreating the faithful: "My fondest hope is that Jesus' prayer in the Upper Room: 'Father, that they may all be one' (cf. Jn 17:21), will always be on your lips and never cease to beat in your hearts".22

III. Ecumenical Achievements

John Paul II devotes the second chapter of his Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint to the fruits of dialogue. I shall content myself with citing the subtitles of its paragraphs which are evocative in themselves: "Brotherhood rediscovered, Solidarity in the service of humanity, Approaching one another through the Word of God and through divine worship, Appreciating the endowments present among other Christians, The growth of communion, Dialogue with the Churches of the East, Resuming contacts, Sister Churches, Progress in dialogue, Relations with the Ancient Churches of the East, Dialogue with other Churches and Ecclesial Communities in the West, Ecclesial Relations, Achievements of cooperation". This chapter itself is 40 pages long.

In developing this topic, the Holy Father writes: "At times it seems that we are closer to being able finally to seal this 'real although not yet full' communion. A century ago who could even have imagined such a thing?" 23

1. With the Orthodox Churches

The same document, Ut Unum Sint, says concerning the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church that it is already possible to speak of a gradual rediscovery of one another as "Sister Churches". The term "sisters" has a profound theological significance. It denotes recognition of the other as having in Apostolic Succession, the same sacramental structure concerning the Eucharist, the priesthood and the Episcopate.24

Fraternal relations were then re-established between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches of the East which had rejected the dogma formulated by the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. The Orthodox Churches concerned are: the Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian, Armenian and Malankara Churches. Their leaders have at last declared "our common faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true Man".

These declarations took place successively under Paul VI with Patriarch Jacob III, Head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in 1971, and with Pope Shenouda III, Head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in 1973. Under Pope John Paul II, in 1984, Pope Mar Ignatius Zakka II, Head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, made a similar declaration. Patriarch Abouna Paulos, Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, followed suite in 1993.

That was also the year of the Declaration of the Balamand Meeting in Lebanon. The representatives of nine autocephalous and autonomous Churches attended it. On behalf of the Catholic Church, 24 members of the Joint Commission took part in the meeting. This declaration recognizes in particular that: "On each side it is recognized that what Christ has entrusted to his Church — profession of apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, above all, the one priesthood celebrating the one sacrifice of Christ, the apostolic succession of bishops — cannot be considered the exclusive property of one of our Churches".25 The following year, in 1994, it was the turn of Mar Dinkha IV, Head of the Assyrian Orthodox Church, formerly known as the Nestorian Church.

2. From the Reformation Churches

Relations with the reformed Churches also developed in a more or less satisfactory way. We cite the Lutheran World Federation: The dialogue that has been going on for a third of a century since the Second Vatican Council has led to a certain consensus on the essential content of the Doctrine of Justification by faith. It cannot be denied that there are still certain differences, but they do not, however, divide the Church.

On 31 October 1999 the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a common declaration presenting the fundamental agreement reached by the one Church and the other after long years of ecumenical meetings and theological discussions on the Doctrine of Justification. In an article by Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, that was published in January 2000, the Cardinal emphasized the importance of the Joint Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, "without concealing the divergences that continue to exist"."

However, John Paul II indicates which topics will require in-depth examination in order to reach a true consensus in the faith.

1.— Relations between Sacred Scripture, the supreme authority on the faith, and Holy Tradition, an indispensable interpretation of the Word of God.

2.— The Eucharist, the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, the offering of praise to the Father, the sacrificial memorial and the real presence of Christ, the sanctifying outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

3.— Ordination, as a sacrament, to the triple ministry of the Episcopate, to the Priesthood, and to the Diaconate.

4.— The Magisterium of the Church, entrusted to the Pope and to the Bishops in communion with him, understood as responsibility and authority in the Name of Christ for the teaching and safeguarding of the faith.

5.— The Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Icon of the Church, the spiritual Mother who intercedes for the disciples of Christ and for all humanity.

3. Problem of the Petrine Ministry

John Paul II was the first to recognize this problem in 1984 before the World Council of Churches in Geneva. As he recalls in his Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint "The Catholic Church's conviction that in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome she has preserved, in fidelity to the Apostolic Tradition and the faith of the Fathers, the visible sign and guarantor of unity, constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians, whose memory is marked by certain painful recollections". And here he does not hesitate to ask pardon: "I join my Predecessor Paul VI in asking forgiveness".27

He is very glad that the problem of the primacy of Rome has now "become a subject of study which is already under way or will be in the near future". He recalls what St Augustine said about this: after showing that Christ is "the one Shepherd, in whose unity all are one", he adds: "May all shepherds thus be one in the one Shepherd; may they let the one voice of the Shepherd be heard... may the sheep hear this voice... and not a babble of voices... this voice free of all division, purified of all heresy, that the sheep hear".28

Further, feeling the burden of his office, John Paul II confides that it is an "immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea 'that they may all be one... so that the world may believe that you have sent me'"?29

Receiving us in Audience on 29 September 1998, and after recalling the few lines from his Encyclical Ut Unum Sint that I have just quoted, the Holy Father addressed to us, the five Oriental Catholic Patriarchs, the following words: "It is first up to you to seek, with us, the most suitable forms so that this ministry [of unity] can carry out a service of charity recognized by all. I ask you to give the Pope your help in the name of that responsibility for re-establishing full communion with the Orthodox Churches... which belongs to you as Patriarchs of Churches that share so much of the theological, liturgical, spiritual and canonical patrimony with Orthodoxy".30

4. Two important events

Especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made enormous progress in ecumenical matters. To get an idea of the ground covered and to show how far we are from the atmosphere that prevailed even half a century ago, at least among us in the Near East, may I recall a seminary memory from the end of the 1940s.

We were at the Eastern Rite Seminary which at that time was part of St Joseph's University in Beirut. Our Director was a Jesuit Father of Orthodox origins. His family members had remained Orthodox. He lost his mother. The seminarians wondered whether they could take part in the prayers in the Orthodox Church. Having been consulted, the professor of moral theology was of the opinion that it would be possible to take part it the prayers — not sitting in the choir like seminarians, but in the nave like the ordinary faithful. He reminded us at the same time of his teaching on the communicatio in sacris which prohibited an Orthodox organist from playing the organ in a Catholic Church. It was forbidden likewise to toll the bell in a Catholic church to announce the death of an Orthodox believer. There was a whole series of prohibitions of this kind.

Another episode might have turned into a fight. I think it must have happened in the 1950s. In this day and age, it would have been considered scandalous. On the occasion of the death of a well-known Maronite, as was the custom, the Orthodox faithful were summoned from the same district of Beirut. Tradition requires the faithful to come, led by their parish priest. He arrived with his faithful and, at the Maronite priest's invitation, was about to take a seat in the choir. The Maronite Bishop presiding told the Orthodox parish priest that he could not sit in the choir. The parish priest, whose self-esteem was wounded, stormed out of the church followed by all his faithful, some grumbling, and others with a torrent of abuse. Fortunately, that period is gone for ever and the attitude of the faithful of different Churches is far more tolerant throughout the world.

How times have changed! The Directory for the Application of the Norms and Principles of Ecumenism says concerning sharing in the sacramental life, especially the Eucharist: "Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage suggests, and provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it is lawful for any Catholic for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, to receive the sacraments of Penance, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick from a minister of an Eastern Church" 31

Already in 1980, in an Address to the Secretariat for Christian Unity, John Paul II declared: "I am convinced, moreover, that a rearticulation of the ancient Eastern and Western traditions and the balanced exchange that will result when full communion is found again, may be of great importance to heal the divisions that came about in the West in the 16th century".32

Furthermore, John Paul II notes this clearly when he stresses in Ut Unum Sint that: "Our common awareness that we belong to Christ is growing deeper". He adds, "I have personally been able many times to observe this during the ecumenical celebrations which are an important part of my Apostolic Visits to various parts of the world, and also in the meetings and ecumenical celebrations which have taken place in Rome". A little further on he says again: "In a word, Christians have been converted to a fraternal charity which embraces all Christ's disciples".33

As a conclusion to this statement, we could say, with Mons. John Radano who heads the Western Section of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, that: "The engagement of the Catholic Church in favour of ecumenism is definitive and irrevocable for this reason: the prayer of the Lord who asks that his disciples 'be one' is eternal. Important steps have been taken towards unity. Many more have yet to be made at every level of the local and universal Church".34

Part Two

John Paul II and Interreligious Dialogue

Interreligious dialogue gathered momentum after the Second Vatican Council that dedicated to it a Declaration entitled Nostra Aetate which deals with non-Christian religions. This Declaration states: "Throughout history even to the present day, there is found among different peoples a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life. At times there is present even a recognition of a supreme being, or still more of a Father".35 However, it stops at Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. Lacking time, I limit myself to saying a word about Islam and Judaism.

I. Islam

The Declaration Nostra Aetate says above all that "the Church has also a high regard for Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet; his virgin Mother they also honour, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting".

The Council goes even further and "pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values"."

A. Applying Vatican Council II

John Paul II has made it his duty to apply the recommendations of the Second Vatican Council. In 1988, he raised the Secretariat for Non-Christians, which Paul VI had created in 1964, to the rank of Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Pastor Bonus defines the competence of this Council in these terms: "The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue fosters and supervises relations with members and groups of non-Christian religions as well as with those who are in any way endowed with religious feeling" (n. 159).

In his Pastoral Visits, the Pope has always been eager to make contact with Muslim figures and groups. He has even visited Muslim Countries and been unsparing in his teaching through which he insists on the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians. Lastly, he has always behaved respectfully to Muslims. Nor has he ever failed to stress the common roots that originally linked Judaism and Christianity.

B. Messages at time of Ramadan

Since 1979, a year after entering his office as the common Father of all the faithful, John Paul II spoke to the Bishops of North Africa meeting in Rome at an ordinary Assembly in the spring. He said: "Christians and Muslims could take it upon themselves in today's world to bear a public witness of their faith in God the Creator and Master of history. The secularization of social life eventually becomes a burden on the freedom of the human being who must take his own responsibility for his life in the faith".37

Every year, on the occasion of Ramadan, the feast at the end of the fasting, the Secretariat that later became the Council for Interreligious Dialogue has acquired the habit of sending a message to the Muslim world expressing its sympathetic and good wishes.

C. Visits to mainly Muslim Countries

The Holy Father's visits to Muslim Countries fall within his sympathetic view of Islam. Countries include:

— Turkey in 1979, where he recalled the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on Islam;

— Morocco in 1985, where he spoke to young Muslims, telling them among other things: "I believe that we, Christians and Muslims, must recognize with joy the religious values that we have in common, and give thanks to God for them";39

— Sudan, Benin and Uganda in 1993. With regard to Sudan, to which he paid a one-day visit, he said: "It is also necessary to talk of the problems that concern our relations with the followers of the great religion of Islam, seeking to face them with an open mind with a view to possible solutions";40

— Egypt, in the year 2000, a journey in which I was privileged to be included. On his arrival in Cairo, the Holy Father declared: "The advent of Islam brought splendours of art and learning which has had a determining influence on the Arab world and on Africa";41

— Syria, in 2001, where he visited the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and spoke to the Muslims. He said to them: "As members of the one human family and as believers we have obligations to the common good, to justice and to solidarity. Interreligious dialogue will lead to various forms of cooperation, especially in responding to the duty to care for the poor and the weak".42

D. His teaching

May I take as an example of this enlightened teaching that recommends the friendly coexistence of Muslims and Christians the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation UneEspérance Nouvelle pour le Liban (A New Hope for Lebanon). In it the Pope says: "Having lived side by side down the centuries both in peace and collaboration and in confrontations and conflicts, Christians and Muslims in Lebanon must find in a dialogue respectful of the sensibilities of individuals and of the different communities the indispensable way to friendly coexistence and to building society". To highlight the presence of Muslims as fraternal delegates at the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Lebanon, held in Rome. in 1995, he said: "I thank the Muslim and Druze fraternal delegates for attending the Synodal Assembly and for their active participation in the dialogue".43

E. The two Days of Prayer in Assisi

In the context of interreligious dialogue, John Paul II twice convened a day of prayer in Assisi: in 1986 and in 1999. I had the honour of taking part in them.

The first day gathered about 130 leaders belonging to all the Christian communities and all the non-Christian religions who had been the Pope's guests at Assisi to pray and fast for peace. A large number of believers across the world also took part in this day.44

The second day gathered almost 200 participants from 20 different religious traditions. In his Address closing this interreligious meeting, John Paul II emphasized that: "Any use of religion to support violence is an abuse of religion. Religion is not, and must not become, a pretext for conflict, particularly when religious, cultural and ethnic identity coincide. Religion and peace go together; to wage war in the name of religion is a blatant contradiction".45

II. Judaism

As in the case of Islam, the Second Vatican Council also expressed its regard for the Jewish religion. It said in particular: "The Church of Christ acknowledges that in God's plan of salvation, the beginning of her faith and election is to be found in the patriarchs, Moses and the prophets. She professes that all Christ's faithful, who as men of faith are sons of Abraham (cf. Gal 3:7), are included in the same patriarch's call and that the salvation of the Church is mystically prefigured in the Exodus of God's Chosen People from the land of bondage". It added, "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion".47

At the time, this passage — we remember it well — provoked a storm of protest in the Muslim world, especially among the Palestinians, still involved after more than half a century in a bloody conflict with the Israelis.

Immediately after the Second Vatican Council in 1967, the Holy See set up an office for relations between Catholics and, Jews. Later it was to become the "Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews". In 1974, this Commission was included in the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. That same year, the Commission published a guide and suggestions for the application of Nostra Aetate which served as a basis for dialogue with Judaism. In 1985, the Commission published Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church. We read in the conclusion: "Our two traditions are so related that they cannot ignore each other. Mutual knowledge must be encouraged at every level".

1. Sensitivity of the Jewish issue

From the moment he was elected to the chair of Peter, John Paul II showed his desire to follow the teaching of the Council. Moreover, he was keenly sensitive to the Jewish question since his childhood in Poland, the Country of his birth. His biographers suggest that this may have been because of his friendship with certain Jewish compatriots.

"For the vast Catholic public, two strongly symbolic acts, 14 years apart, have marked this Pontificate: one at the beginning, the Pope's visit to the important synagogue of Rome in April 1986; and the other, his prayer at the Wailing Wall in March 2000. Historians would remember a third event, exactly midway between them: the 'Fundamental Agreement' signed by the Holy See and the State of Israel in 30 December 1993".47

In his Address in response to Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff of Rome, Pope John Paul II stressed three essential points: "The first is that the Church of Christ discovers her 'bond' with Judaism by 'searching into her own mystery' (Nostra Aetate, n. 4)....

"The second point noted by the Council is that no ancestral or collective blame can be imputed to the Jews as a people for 'what happened in Christ's Passion' [cf. ibid.]....

"The third point that I would like to emphasize in the Council's Declaration is a consequence of the second. Notwithstanding the Church's awareness of her own identity, it is not lawful to say that the Jews are 'repudiated or cursed', as if this were taught or could be deduced from the Sacred Scriptures'" [ibid.].48

On the occasion of his successful Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2000, the Holy Father's acts were deeply moving, especially his meditation by the Western Wall of the Temple of Jerusalem. He went up to it alone, and ended his reflection by inserting this prayer in a crack between the stones in the wall:

"God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. Through Jesus, the Christ, our Lord. Amen".
Sunday, 26 March 2000

There have been several controversial topics, however, between Christians and Jews. We mention in passing the Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz that was replaced by a Jewish study centre in 1992; Pius XII's attitude to the extermination of the Jews, although he condemned this extermination; the canonization of Edith Stein, Sr Teresa of the Cross, in 1998; the document of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews dated March 1998, We Remember: Reflection on the "Shoah"; the Shoah was "certainly the worst suffering of all".50 We cannot, after all, disregard the tragedy that has been going on in the Holy Land between Jews and Palestinians for more than half a century, and is at the root of the destabilization of the whole of the Middle East region.


On this day of the celebration of his luminous Pontificate, surrounded by the College of Cardinals whose members have come from all the horizons of the Catholic world, sustained by the prayer of the faithful everywhere and the object of admiration for the Christian world and for the world in general, His Holiness Pope John Paul II has certainly earned the admiration of both the Church and humanity, for which he has always marked out the path to follow even at the price of his health, a path which is none other than that of the One who said: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life".51

Ad Multos Annos!


1 Jn 17:21.

2Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 1.

3Ut Unum Sint, n. 9.

4 Eph 4:5-6.

5Ut Unum Sint, n. 15.

6Ibid., n. 20.

7The Bishop and his Ministry, Urbaniana University Press, 1998, p. 290.

8Ibid., p. 291.

9When a Pope Asks Forgiveness, p.68.

10Ut Unum Sint, n. 21.

11Ibid., n. 15.

12Ibid., nn. 28, 29.

13Ibid., nn. 33, 34.

14Ibid., n. 35.

15Ibid., n. 36.

16lbid., n. 40.

17Documentation Catholique, 1993, n. 2075, p. 626.

18New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 71.

19Ut Unum Sint, n. 52.

20Ibid., n. 52.

21Ibid., n. 53.

22 New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 71.

23Ut Unum Sint, n. 45.

24The Bishop and his Ministry, p. 294.

25Documentation Catholique, 1994, n. 2100, p. 782.

26Documentation Catholique, 2001, n. 2247, p. 411.

27Ut Unum Sint., n. 88.

28Ibid., n. 94.

29Ibid., n. 96.

30Documentation Catholique, 1998, p. 952.

31Ecumenical Directory, n. 123.

32Documentation Catholique, 1980, p. 223.

33Ut Unum Sint, n. 42.

34The Bishop and his Ministry, p. 296.

35Nostra Aetate, n. 2.

36Ibid., n. 3.

37Documentation Catholique, 1979, p. 761.

38Ibid., 1979, p. 1052.

39Ibid., 1985, p. 945.

40Ibid., 1994, p. 102.

41Ibid., 2000, p. 261.

42Ibid., 2001, p. 479.

43Ibid., 1997, p. 533.

44Ibid., 1986, p. 1065.

45Ibid., 1999, p. 1090.

46Nostra Aetate, n. 4.

47Lumière et Vie, 2003, p. 22.

48Documentation Catholique, 1986, pp. 437-438.

49Ibid., 1998, p. 952.

50Ibid., 1998, p. 337.

51 Jn 14:6.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 December 2003, page 10

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