News your connection to The Boston Globe

BRIDGING A DIVIDE: Chief Rabbi Israel Lau leaned in to speak to Pope John Paul II during the pontiff's historic visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 23, 2000.
BRIDGING A DIVIDE: Chief Rabbi Israel Lau leaned in to speak to Pope John Paul II during the pontiff's historic visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on March 23, 2000. (AFP File Photo)

A concerted effort to reach out to other faiths

Picture the aged pope in Jerusalem, shuffling up to the Western Wall, placing a prayer among the stones as Jews have done for centuries.

See him gathering at Assisi with Buddhists and Hindus and Christians from around the world.

Remember that first papal visit to a synagogue, to a mosque, to the Athens residence of the Greek Orthodox archbishop.

'He would never refuse to see anybody of importance from another church, and that was a sign of the importance that he gave to this field.'

CARDINAL EDWARD I. CASSIDY, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity
    Pope John Paul II, although personally popular, leaves behind a complex and controversial legacy on many fronts. But his unrelenting work to improve relations between Catholics and non-Catholics — sometimes successful and sometimes not — will go down as one of the pope's most important and lasting legacies.

Informed by his personal history growing up with Jewish friends and by his presence at the Second Vatican Council, where the church committed itself to dialogue with adherents of non-Catholic Christian denominations and non-Christian faiths, John Paul II amassed an extraordinary, and many believe transformative, record of improving relations, particularly between Catholics and Jews and between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Both of those relationships are strained by painful histories, and John Paul II's record is not without failure and disappointment, but scholars credit him with a fierce determination to overcome centuries of distrust and tireless work toward a goal of harmony he knew he was unlikely to witness himself.

''There's no question that this pontificate has bent more effort toward healing the two great fractures — the fracture between East and West and the intra-Western fracture — than any pontificate in the second millennium,'' said papal biographer George Weigel.

John Paul II approved a number of important Vatican documents on ecumenical and interreligious relations, including ''Ut Unum Sint,'' a 1995 encyclical in which the pope pleaded for Christian unity, and ''We Remember,'' a 1998 reflection that called the Holocaust ''an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close.''

But many scholars argue that even more important than the theological statements were John Paul II's frequent meetings with non-Catholic religious leaders and his visits to sites of importance to other religious traditions.

''I've heard bishops say that it's easier to get an audience with the Holy Father if you are a non-Catholic bishop than if you are a Catholic bishop — he would never refuse to see anybody of importance from another church, and that was a sign of the importance that he gave to this field,'' said Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Pro-motion of Christian Unity, who from 1989 to 2001 was the pope's top adviser on relations between the Vatican and non-Catholic Christians and with Jews.

''Symbolism was very much a part of the Holy Father's presentation — he would seek a way not just to speak about it, but to do something which illustrates it,'' Cassidy said. ''And personal contact with leaders gave them a different understanding of the kind of person he is and the role he has — if you're very distant, you can have all kinds of strange ideas about what a despotic person he is, and then you meet him and he's humble and easy to talk to with a very deep understanding of relationships, and that does have a deep effect.''

Under John Paul II, relations between Catholics and Jews, which had been characterized by centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism that many scholars believed created fertile ground for the Holocaust, dramatically improved.

The pope took a number of steps to demonstrate his solidarity with Jews. In 1979, he visited Auschwitz; in 1986, he took a history-making trip across town to visit the Rome synagogue, and in 1994 the Vatican established diplomatic relations with Israel. John Paul II repeatedly rejected the notion that Christianity had superseded Judaism, instead referring to Jews as ''our elder brothers in faith'' and describing anti-Semitism as a sin.

''This pope, in just 20 years, reversed 2,000 years of Catholic-Jewish history,'' said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. ''On the spiritual level, on the political level, on the historic level, he tried to repair 2,000 years of the teaching of contempt.''

Many Jewish leaders, including Foxman, had initially rued the election of John Paul II because of a concern about Polish anti-Semitism. But Foxman, for one, later came to believe that it was John Paul's own history, which included childhood friendships with Jews and a firsthand view of the Nazi Holocaust, that led him to become the best pope in history for Jews.

''John Paul II will go down in history as having made the most significant contribution to Catholic-Jewish relations of any pope in history,'' said Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser of the American Jewish Committee, who met with John Paul on 10 occasions.

There remain stumbling blocks, particularly regarding the Holocaust. Many Jews have been unhappy with John Paul II's slowness in granting scholars full access to archives, and his movement to-ward the canonization of the Holocaust-era pope, Pius XII, who some believe did not do enough to stop genocide.

John Paul II has invested considerable energy in repairing relations with Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which formally split from the West in 1054. But this effort has proved to be challenging.

''On the one hand, there seems to have been a great deal of interest from this pope in establishing better relations with the Orthodox, and he's gone out of his way to meet with Orthodox leaders,'' said Rev. Thomas FitzGerald, professor of church history and historical theology at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline. ''But many Orthodox have been deeply concerned about the strategies of the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the wake of the end of the Soviet Union, involving the revitalization of Eastern Catholic churches and the establishment of four dioceses in Russia.''

The most significant symbol of the pope's failure to achieve reconciliation with the Eastern Orthodox was his inability to win an invitation to visit Russia because of opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church. When he did visit other predominantly Orthodox countries, John Paul II was greeted by hostile demonstrators.

With Protestants, John Paul II took a major step toward reconciliation in 1999, authorizing the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. The document, in which the Catholic Church conceded that salvation comes as a result of God's grace, ended one of the major theological debates that triggered the Protestant Reformation.

''There have been real advances, particularly with the joint declaration on justification, and more informally, with the commitment to ecumenism that the pope has shown,'' said Michael Root, a professor of systematic theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Ohio. ''There is no turning back.''

But the divide between Catholics and mainline Protestants has widened in recent decades over issues such as the ordination of women and attitudes toward homosexuality. After the Episcopal Church USA ordained a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, the pope told Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that ''new and serious difficulties...have arisen on the path to unity,'' and the Vatican then put on hold an International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission.

''One could say that, informally, John Paul has become the teacher of all Christians, because while only Catholics formally recognize him as having teaching authority, many Christians look to him as a teacher,'' said Geoffrey Wainwright, a professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School. ''But there is no doubt that the ordination of women, and more recently, the ordination of an openly homosexual bishop in the Episcopal Church in the USA, has put a brake on developments between Catholics and Protestants.''

The meetings with Jews were aimed at reconciliation; with other Christians, ultimately, at unity. But John Paul II also met with other religious leaders, aiming simply at peace. In 1986, for example, he invited representatives of numerous world religions to pray together at Assisi.

The pope expressed his own frustration over the slow pace of progress in a talk about ecumenism in early 2003.

''We cannot fail to acknowledge realistically the difficulties, the problems, and at times the disappointments which we still encounter,'' he said at a vespers service in Rome. ''At times we sense a certain weariness, a lack of fervor, while still experiencing that pain that we are not yet able to share the Eucharistic banquet.''

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months