Prague, 15 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Bridging the existing gulf between Roman Catholics and members of other religions has been John Paul's major preoccupation throughout his pontificate. The accent has been on expressing respect for others but also on finding common roots with other creeds.
Several events illustrate this. In October, 1986, John Paul invited representatives of all major world religions to come to the Italian town of Assisi to pray for peace. No debates or arguments were envisaged.
John Paul told the gathering that representatives of each religion were to pray for peace, but separately, in accordance with their own traditions.
The prayer was to demonstrate two things. The first was that all religions are rooted in the general recognition of the existence of one Supreme Being to whom all prayers are directed. The other was to provide an expression of mutual respect for existing religious differences. There was also an underlying hope that, somehow, those differences could be reconciled in the name of the general goal of preserving peace.
The meeting in Assisi came only a few months after another, equally significant event: John Paul's visit to the Rome Synagogue (April 1986).
No other Catholic Pontiff had visited a Jewish synagogue in modern times (the first Catholic popes used synagogues as principal places of prayer during the early centuries of Christianity).
Over the centuries, the Catholic Church as an institution as well as some of its teachings contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism. The history of the Church has been punctuated by numerous acts of persecution of Jews. In the Middle Ages, Jews were forcibly expelled under prodding by Church authorities from various European countries, including France and Spain.
John Paul went to the Rome Synagogue to express his regret for past injustices, prejudices and persecutions.
The Church "deplores all manifestations of anti-Semitism, at any time and anywhere," the Pope said, using the evangelic text to address Jews as Catholics' "older brothers."
Speaking in Rome with a RFE/RL correspondent, Father Adam Boniecki, head of the international Catholic order of Maryan Fathers and author of books on John Paul, said that the meeting in Assisi and the Pope's visit to the Synagogue might have represented "the greatest moments of the pontificate" in the area of ecumenism.
Boniecki said that those two events represented what he called "the most significant steps since the Second Vatican Council" in the Church's policy toward other religions. They demonstrated an effort toward rapprochement through both a recognition of, and respect for, the distinctiveness and separateness of the creeds.
A third, even earlier effort at building bridges to other faiths was John Paul's meeting with young Muslims in the Moroccan city of Casablanca in August, 1985.
The Pope focused there again on asserting "a common ground" between Christians and Muslims. We all share similar spiritual values, John Paul said, because we all believe in "one God," although this God may have for us different names. We also share, the Pope affirmed, the same human rights and values.
These three events --and there have been many others-- are testimony to John Paul's efforts to promote recognition of other creeds and to strengthen contacts with them.
This policy had already been adopted by the Church's collective leadership during the Vatican Council in the 1960s, but has received a major impulse through John Paul's activities and efforts.
Practical effects of this effort have been more mixed, however, largely due to the historical complexity of relations between the Catholic Church and other Churches. With regard to Jews, for example, a Catholic Church document issued this year on anti-Semitism in general and the Holocaust in particular, prompted controversy rather than mutual understanding.
The document was issued in March after more than 10 years of preparatory work. It formally expressed regret for what it termed "the errors and failures" of Catholics who "were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest" against the genocide of the Jews.
The controversy centered on two issues. First, critics said the document failed to acknowledge a link between the Catholic Church's anti-Jewish traditions --clearly acknowledged in the text-- and the emergence and expansion of anti-Semitism. The document said "anti-Judaism" had been the failing of individual Christians, while insisting that anti-Semitism ran contrary to what it said was the "constant teaching of the Church."
The other point of contention was the document's assessment of the role played by Pope Pius during the Holocaust. The document defended the pope. But according to Jewish critics and numerous historians, Pope Pius failed to speak out, or act in public, against the genocide.
The Catholic Church also continues to experience major problems in its efforts to build bridges to Muslims. While John Paul maintains contacts with leaders of Islamic countries, this is mainly done through formal relations between the Vatican and separate governments rather than on religious grounds. Thus, while John Paul has repeatedly met Iranian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Palestinian and other Arab officials and has visited several Arab and African countries in which Islam is predominant, the prospects for finding ecumenical common ground remains uncertain.
The Roman Church's dialogue with the Orthodox Churches has also proved difficult, largely because of the diversity within Orthodoxy itself. The Orthodox Churches have no unified organization, nor do they maintain common representation. Dialogue with them constitutes, therefore, a number of separate dialogues.
The Orthodox Church of Constantinople is particularly close to the Roman Catholic Church. Both John Paul and a predecessor, Pope John, have maintained close ecumenical relations with Constantinople Patriarch Dimitrios and his successor Bartholomew. But the patriarch of Constantinople, while holding a theoretical primacy within Orthodoxy, in practice presides over only a few Turkish and West European centers.
There are autonomous patriarchs in several other countries, including Russia and Ukraine, as well as separate Orthodox Churches led by archbishops. Relations between the Holy See and those Churches are more complex.
Relations between Rome and the Russian Orthodox Church are perhaps the most difficult. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexy, has consistently refused to meet with John Paul, and his Church has strongly and successfully opposed any plans for the pope to visit Russia and Ukraine.
John Paul himself told the Italian newspaper La Stampa in 1993 that a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church had said that it "had suffered greatly and must now find ways to regain (its) following." This preoccupation with rebuilding may go a long way toward explaining Alexy's reluctance to develop contacts with Rome.
And finally, there is a question of the five-million strong Uniate Church, operating in Ukraine and parts of Belarus and Russia. The Uniate Church recognizes the Pope as spiritual head while using eastern Orthodox rites. The Russian Orthodox Church has been strongly critical of the Uniate Church, considering it a Catholic tool aimed at splitting Orthodoxy. John Paul rejects this view and defends the Uniates.
John Paul has repeatedly tried to persuade Alexy of the need to establish grounds for cooperative ecumenical relations and to reach reconciliation. So far, his efforts have been to no avail -- and the prospects for this happening any time soon appear bleak.
(This is the third feature in a three-part series marking the 20th year in the papacy of Pope John Paul.)