The following is an essay by Fr. Ronald Roberson, CSP, Associate Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Building on the legacy of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II spared no effort to heal the thousand-year-old rift between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. One of his first trips outside Rome was to Istanbul, Turkey, to visit His Holiness Dimitrios I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, in November 1979. At the end of the visit the Pope and Patriarch announced the establishment of a theological dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the first official deliberations of this type since the end of the Council of Florence (1431-1445).
In the first decade of his papacy, John Paul emphasized the importance of the Byzantine tradition when he named Saints Cyril and Methodius co-patrons of Europe along with Saint Benedict in 1980, and issued an encyclical about them (Slavorum Apostoli) in 1985. In 1988, he released the Apostolic Letter Euntes in Mundum Universum for the millennium of the baptism of the ancestors of the Ukrainian, Belarusan and Russian peoples.
But in the 1990s relations with the Orthodox went through a difficult period. Many Orthodox in Eastern Europe were suspicious of the Catholic Church, fearful that it would take advantage of the weakness of the Orthodox after years of communist persecution to gain converts at their expense. With this in mind, John Paul repeatedly assured the Orthodox of the Catholic Church’s benevolent intentions. In June 1992 he approved the publication of principles and norms that called upon Catholics in the former Soviet Union to work closely with the Orthodox, and to help them in their struggle to revive after decades of persecution. In his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (1995), the Pope wrote of the rich heritage of the Christian East that needs to be better understood and treasured by Roman Catholics. In the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (1995), the Pope wrote that “the Catholic Church desires nothing less than full communion between East and West.”
Nevertheless, Orthodox uncertainties prevented the world-traveling Pope from visiting a predominantly Orthodox country for many years. The ice was broken only in May 1999 when he made a historic visit to Romania. In the meantime, the Pope made a number of further gestures intended to improve the situation. In 2004 he turned over a church in Rome to the local Greek Orthodox community, returned the Kazan icon of the Mother of God to the Russian Orthodox Church, and returned the relics of Saints John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzan to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Perhaps most importantly, the Pope’s visit to Athens in May 2001 provided an opportunity to improve relations with the Orthodox Church of Greece and to ask forgiveness for the injustices of the past, including the Fourth Crusade. (The Church of Greece had been very reluctant to invite the Pope to visit the country.) Exchanges of lower-level delegations with the Church of Greece took place later, as well as a similar exchange with the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Pope’s visit to Bulgaria in 2002 included encounters with the Bulgarian Patriarch and the Holy Synod. Taken together, these events increased the sense of trust among the Orthodox regarding the intentions of the Catholic Church towards them. These efforts would bear fruit after his death with the resumption of the theological dialogue at a meeting in Belgrade in 2006.
Hearing the news of his death in April 2005, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople sent a message of condolence to the Vatican in which he said that Pope John Paul “did not hesitate before pains and sacrifices in order to bring the message of the Gospel to the entire world and to contribute to the establishment of peace. History will also recount his crucial contribution to the fall of atheistic communism. There are not many such brave men of vision, as the departed Pope. During his passage through the Hierarchy and especially through the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, he drew deep his traces on her and on the history of all humanity, and he has left behind the indelible imprint of his strong personality. Many of his initiatives have been inception of developments, which still advance today. He was a pioneer in many issues. For this reason, his death is a loss not only to his Church, but to all of Christianity as well, and to the international community in general, who desires peace and justice.”
It would be hard to find better words to define the legacy of Pope John Paul II as a reconciler of Christians East and West.