In footsteps of St. Paul, pope crosses chasms

Syria, Greece: Catholic outreach to Orthodox and Muslims reaches back millennium to face future.

May 09, 2001

POPE JOHN PAUL II, who turns 81 next week, is trying to complete the historic mission of his papacy. It is outreach to those in the world who are not Catholic, while seeking to revitalize the faith of those who are.

His six-day journey, following the journey of the Apostle Paul, was no farther in miles than from Baltimore to Denver. The millennium of two historic strifes he traversed was enormous, though. As the Athens newspaper Ethnos headlined, "Papal apology reverses history."

The ecumenical outreach of this pontiff was established by his 1986 visit to a synagogue and his trip last year to Israel. This trip extended the gestures of ecumenism to the Greek Orthodox church and to Islam.

While hearkening to events of nearly 2,000 years ago, the pontiff was dragging his own church into the coming centuries. As close as everywhere is on this small planet, an iron curtain between such neighbors as Athens and Rome is unsustainable.

He was the first pope to set foot in Greece in 13 centuries, the first to visit a mosque in the 14 centuries of Islam. While he did not end the separation of the Christian churches dating from the Great Schism of 1054, his apology and plea for divine pardon for 1,000 years of Roman Catholic sins against Orthodox Christians remove a stumbling block to Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

Deep as this chasm between Catholic and Orthodox is historically, the majority of the world's peoples who are not Christian cannot fathom the difference. Yet, as war between Serbia and Croatia showed, it still motivates terrible passions and defines nationality.

To go from Athens to the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus was mind-boggling. No two religious traditions have a broader array of conflicts in the world than Islam and Christianity.

"In this holy land, Christians, Muslims and Jews are called to work together with confidence and boldness, and to work to bring about without delay the day when the legitimate rights of all people are respected and they can live in peace and mutual understanding," the pope said at Sunday Mass. That is a good thing to have said in Damascus.

Having crossed two of the greatest chasms of Western history, the pope must have felt back home at his third stop -- Malta. It is the most Catholic country in Europe, where St. Paul was shipwrecked in 60 A.D.

John Paul II's journey was marred by anti-papal protests in Athens and by anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli remarks by President Bashar el-Assad and the grand mufti Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro in Damascus. These were not the pope's doing and do not diminish his efforts.

The cause of understanding between peoples was advanced by this brief journey of a frail old man, as by little else in recent times.

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