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In Paul’s footsteps, pope shows will for unity

NCR Staff
Athens, Greece
Damascus and Golan Heights, Syria

If the pope’s journey into Greece and Syria had been a concert tour for a band, the T-shirts might have read, “John Paul’s Forget Dominus Iesus Tour 2001.”

Both the tone and content of the trip, which took the pope to places where Catholics are a tiny minority, were in strong contrast with Dominus Iesus, last September’s Vatican document, which asserted Catholicism’s superiority over other religions and other Christian churches. Some saw the document as a nearly fatal blow to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue.

In contrast, the historic moments of this journey -- in Athens, John Paul’s apology to the Orthodox, and in Damascus, the first papal visit inside a mosque -- suggested anything but an attitude of superiority. They spoke instead of a Catholic church willing to take the first steps toward greater unity.

To be sure, the pope did not repeal Dominus Iesus, which caused so much consternation around the world. In fact, he used its technical vocabulary in referring to “churches and ecclesial communities” rather than to “sister churches” -- a term he’s used previously -- when he greeted non-Catholic Christians.

But popes rarely nullify troublesome documents. If popes want the impact of those documents softened, popes simply act as if the documents had never been published. Over the five days of his trip, John Paul wanted to show that Catholicism’s will to unity is stronger than its need to distinguish “us” from “them.”

In Athens, he started by offering a sweeping apology to the Orthodox church for a catalogue of Western sins.

It came during an exchange of speeches with Archbishop Christodoulos Christos Paraskevadis, 60, head of the Greek Orthodox church, in his Athens palace May 4. Christodoulos went first, and delivered a tongue whipping the likes of which few popes have ever endured.

Christodoulos declared his intention to speak without the “conventional courtesies” and followed through. He informed the pope that “a large part of the church of Greece opposes your presence here.” He said the frosty welcome arose from the “unbrotherly behavior of the western Christian world” toward the Orthodox.

Christodoulos said that “open wounds” remain alive in Greek memory, such as “the destructive mania of the Crusaders” as well as the “unlawful proselytizing” of the Eastern Catholic churches, made up of believers who follow Orthodox rites but profess loyalty to Rome.

“Indeed, on many occasions in our history, our people bitterly noted that the powerful church of Rome denied it during difficult moments,” Christodoulos said.

For Christodoulos, the bottom line was that Orthodoxy had an apology coming. “Until now, there has not been heard even a single request for pardon,” he said.

He didn’t have much longer to wait.

“For 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,” the pope said, speaking in a halting English.

The instant the words left his lips, Christodoulos burst into strong applause, joined by other Orthodox bishops in the room. It seemed to most observers that both men knew what the other planned to say.

Apologizing with a kiss

This was the first verbal request by a pope for pardon from the Orthodox. Paul VI, however, had delivered a de facto apology on Dec. 14, 1975, when he kissed the feet of a delegate from the patriarch of Constantinople in the Sistine Chapel. It was Paul VI’s way of apologizing for the arrogance of a predecessor, Pope Eugene IV, who in 1437 at the Council of Florence, had forced the Orthodox patriarch to kiss his feet in an act of submission.

John Paul made specific reference to the “disastrous sack” of Constantinople in 1204, when Catholic Crusaders laid waste to the capital of the Orthodox world. Chief among the alleged travesties was having a prostitute dance on the patriarch’s throne.

After the apology, Christodoulos had the look of a man who had just won the lottery. He beamed, embraced the pope, and told reporters immediately afterward how “very kind” John Paul had been.

Initial reaction from news outlets in Greece was positive. One Athens daily led with the headline “Road is now open for unity between the two churches,” while another declared, “Twelve centuries of ice broken.”

Haris Konidaris, spokesperson for Christodoulos, told NCR May 5 that the Greek Orthodox church was “truly satisfied” with John Paul’s “humble gesture of love.”

“Apology accepted,” Konidaris said.

In Syria, John Paul made another kind of history by being the first pope to enter a mosque.

He made his way through the Omayad mosque in old Damascus, like all visitors, without his shoes. Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, his personal secretary, removed the pope’s loafers and put slippers on his feet.

That simple act of respect was matched by the tone of his remarks.

“The fact that 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 God in all things,” John Paul told Syria’s grand mufti, Shiekh Ahmad Kuftaro.

Kuftaro, 86, and John Paul, 80, made a striking pair as both shuffled along using canes to reach a reception area from which they spoke.

“Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures, and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction,” the pope said. “Better mutual understanding will surely lead, at the practical level, to a new way of presenting our religions not in opposition, as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family.”

The appeal seemed to go over well.

The mufti predicted “the start of a new era of tolerance,” saying it was “a great day for Muslims around the world.” Kuftaro called for meetings to discuss how Catholics and Muslims can cooperate on charitable endeavors.

From Iran came word May 7 that the foreign ministry had hailed the pope’s mosque visit as contributing to “better understanding” between Christians and Muslims.

Despite heavy security in downtown Damascus, with row upon row of tan-uniformed police lining the streets and dozens of plainclothes officers sporting machine guns, large crowds turned out to cheer the pope, including many Muslims.

World’s oldest shopping mall

Stores in the market zone of old Damascus, which is essentially the world’s oldest shopping mall, were full of papal memorabilia. Posters in Arabic compared the pope to luminaries such as Beethoven, Salvador Dali and Charlie Chaplin.

Even the jokes Syrian Muslims told one another about the visit seemed genial. A popular one making the rounds asked why “Babba,” which in Arabic means both father and pope, was not bringing his “Mama.”

The good will was also clear at papal events in Damascus, where the young people who handed out programs all wore green vests, the color of Islam, even though most of them were Christian. Ironically, the vests were emblazoned with the name of a corporate sponsor known for advertising that stresses tolerance: “United Colors of Benneton.”

The other form of unity John Paul came to stress in Syria was inter-Christian. The country’s 3 million Christians are roughly evenly divided between Catholics and Orthodox, and by all accounts the experience of being a minority has bred a special closeness.

At John Paul’s May 6 Mass at Abyssinian Stadium, the crowd of 40,000 included a large number -- some estimates ran as high as half -- of Orthodox believers.

In many cases, according to observers here, Syrian Christians don’t make a strong distinction between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. This is especially so since Syrian Catholics follow one of five Eastern rites, and hence the liturgies they attend are virtually identical with those in Orthodox churches.

“Orthodox and Catholics here live together. They are united socially and politically. Most of our families are mixed,” said Basilian Fr. Toufic Eid, superior of the monastery of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus in the Syrian village of Maaloula, one of only three places in the world in which Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken.

Eid told NCR that Orthodox believers in Maaloula often come to Mass at the Catholic church, and vice versa. “Our people really don’t distinguish between the two churches,” he said. “In their mind it’s the same thing.”

As one sign of this unity, Orthodox bishops accompanied John Paul at almost every turn of his schedule, with some of them riding in the popemobile. In Greece, by contrast, no Orthodox bishop turned up to greet the pope at the airport, and the popemobile wasn’t even used.

The Syrian leg of the pope’s journey also took on a political resonance Syrian President Bashar Al-Asaad, a London-trained ophthalmologist who inherited his father’s absolute grip on power last June, used the pope’s May 6 arrival to condemn Israel in terms that shocked many listeners.

After complaining about Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians, Al-Assad said, “They try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him, and in the same way that they tried to commit treachery against Prophet Muhammad.”

Israeli officials denounced the comments as anti-Semitic.

Not to be cowed, Al-Assad returned to the point during the farewell ceremony for the pope May 8, saying it was unacceptable that “we the Semites are accused of being anti-Semitic.”

John Paul did not endorse Al-Assad’s views, and papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls tried to put distance between the Vatican and the Syrian leader by saying the president had a right to his opinion.

Propaganda coup for Syria

Nevertheless, John Paul handed the Syrians a major propaganda coup by traveling to Quneitra, once a city of 53,000 in the Golan Heights that Israel had occupied in 1967 and reduced to rubble before withdrawing in 1974.

The pope offered a non-partisan prayer for peace in a ruined Orthodox church. His very presence, however, seemed calculated to pressure Israel to accelerate the peace process.

The Quneitra excursion aside, John Paul’s central agenda item was a new burst of energy toward religious unity, above all with the Orthodox. While the trip was still in progress, there were signs it will not be easy.

Even in amicable Syria, one Orthodox leader challenged the pope in public.

“Did Cardinal Ratzinger mean in Dominus Iesus that only the Catholic church is the one true church?” Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim asked when the pope visited the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Damascus. “We believe in all humility that the church founded by Jesus Christ continues to subsist fully in the Orthodox church,” Ignatius insisted.

He wasn’t finished.

“There is a point which seems crucial to us,” he said: “that of the anathemas established by Vatican Council I against those who do not recognize papal infallibility. Are these anathemas still directed at those of us who hold an ecclesiology different from yours?”

No response was forthcoming from John Paul except a brotherly embrace that seemed out of place if the pope really thinks Ignatius is excommunicated.

From Moscow, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II threw cold water on the papal apology, saying it remains to be seen whether it will make any difference in places where Catholics and Orthodox are in conflict -- above all in Ukraine, where the pope heads June 23-26.

Alexei also said an invitation for a trip to Moscow, long the apple of John Paul’s eye, is “improbable in the near future.”

Yet in the end, none of this seemed to take the glow off a trip that showed the world a Catholic leader who seemed gentle rather than triumphalistic, who spoke out of humility rather than hubris.

John Paul’s will to unity seemed at times capable of melting even the iciest resistance. In advance of the pope’s trip to Greece, for example, Orthodox officials had said a firm “no” to the idea of joint prayer.

Yet Friday night, May 4, when the pope received Christodoulos and seven other Orthodox bishops at the residence of the apostolic nuncio in Athens, he made an impromptu proposal. “Can’t we pray the Our Father in Greek?” he asked.

They did.

A small step, perhaps, but of such small steps historic change is made.

The e-mail for John L. Allen, Jr., is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001