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Vatican: Can Pope's Symbolism-laden Trip Alter History?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Nearing 81 years of age and in declining health, Pope John Paul retains his flair for the gesture that captures the imagination of the world. On his latest trip, to Greece, Syria, and Malta, the Polish-born Pontiff set several precedents. In Greece, he asked God to forgive 1,000 years of sins by Roman Catholics against Orthodox Christians. In Syria, he became the first pope ever to visit a mosque. But can these gestures by translated into permanent gains in relations between the different churches and beliefs? RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke speaks to theologians on the significance of the Pope's actions.

Prague, 10 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- He looked tired, his stooped figure moved with difficulty and his once-strong voice often dwindled to an indistinct slur. But Pope John Paul's indomitable will carried him through his latest pilgrimage, in the steps of the apostle Saint Paul, to Greece, Syria, and Malta.

On his first stop, Greece, John Paul helped to diffuse tension by apologizing -- in the presence of Greek Orthodox leader Archbishop Christodoulos -- for sins committed by Roman Catholics against their Orthodox brethren. He asked God to forgive the transgressions of almost 1,000 years -- since the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christianity into eastern and western branches.

This gesture managed to ease the hitherto stiff atmosphere between the Pontiff and the Greek Church leaders. The weeks prior to the papal visit had seen public demonstrations by conservative Greek Orthodox Church members opposed to the arrival of the man they called the great heretic. As a symbol of reconciliation, the Pope's action was significant. As the prominent German theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel puts it, in comments to RFE/RL:

"In one respect, symbolism is very important, especially in relation to other churches and other cultures. Such symbolic acts are valuable, and [in this case] the Greek Patriarch [Christopoulos] clapped spontaneously when the Pope acknowledged, on behalf of Catholics, the past injustices and asked forgiveness for those injustices." The two leaders later embraced, and the rest of the visit passed in a more cordial atmosphere.

Later, in Syria, the Pope sustained the symbolism by becoming the first Catholic pontiff to visit a mosque. At the historic Great Umayyad mosque, with the tomb of the Islamic leader Saladin nearby, John Paul again spoke of the need for mutual forgiveness and to build partnership for the good of humanity.

The eminent German theologian Hans Kung calls that "a very courageous action" by the Pope. Kung says peace among the nations in the Middle East is dependent upon peace among the religions.

"It is quite obvious that the visit of the Pope to a mosque is for the whole of the Islamic world a sign of respect, of sympathy, of peace, of a possible cooperation. And on the other side, I think it must be mentioned, it is also a sign of the tolerance of Muslims, who accept [the presence] of the Pope in a mosque, although this is not self-evident."

Both German theologians agree on the value of symbols in achieving goodwill. But there is a limit to what such gestures can accomplish in concrete terms. Referring to the Orthodox-Catholic rift, Kuschel -- a professor of interreligious dialogue at Tuebingen University -- puts it this way:

"I would not like to underestimate such symbolism. But the hard theological issues in ecumenical dialogue are of course not in the least changed by it. Those [issues] lie on a completely different plane. Between the Orthodox Christian world and the Roman Catholic world there is the question of the primacy and the infallibility of the Pope -- that's at the heart of what divides the two churches."

Kuschel notes that there has been a dialogue between the Orthodox Christian and the Catholic churches for decades. However, he says: "There exists no will on the Vatican's side to come to a real result through consultations, in other words to review critically the doctrines of [papal] primacy and infallibility in the light of the [two churches'] 1,000 years of mutual tradition. That would be a decisive step, in the service of ecumenism."

Theologian Kung also says that to be consequent, the Pope should now go further than mere gesture. Kung points out that there is an anomaly in the Pope reaching out to other churches and world religions when at the same time Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in Rome has published documents which suggest that non-Catholic churches are not, in King's words, "true churches." Ratzinger, who is considered an arch-conservative, heads the Vatican agency known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"I think now it will be necessary that in the Vatican they will give a more positive response to the question of the other Christian churches, and of the world religions. If not, the Pope will be accused of being ambivalent, and making double-talk."

Certainly, the Russian Orthodox Church appears to be unimpressed so far with the Pope's gestures in the direction of Orthodoxy. John Paul is scheduled next month to visit Ukraine (23-27 June). The Russian church has opposed the trip, demanding that the Vatican make amends for what it views as the seizure of Orthodox churches in Western Ukraine and efforts to convert their congregations to Catholicism. But the Pope is determined to press ahead with the visit.

The just-concluded papal trip also created -- unintentionally -- a possibility of increased tension between Catholics and Jews. In his address welcoming the Pope to Syria, President Bashar al-Assad made comments regarded as classically anti-Semitic. Israeli President Moshe Katzav rejected Assad's references as racist and urged the Vatican to respond to them. The United States and France also complained about the Syrian leader's comments. The Pope himself made no comment on the incident.

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