A Pilgrimage That May Change Church History

"John Paul II Has Knocked Down Another Wall"

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 10, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Historians may one day speak of a "before" and an "after" in the life of the Church, in connection with the Pontiff´s pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul.



From May 4 to May 9, unexpected horizons opened in the dialogue for unity with the Orthodox world, in relations between Christianity and Islam, and in the commitment to peace in the Middle East.

"A giant step with a walking stick," was the Italian newspaper Avvenire´s comment on John Paul II´s visit to Athens, an opinion shared by the Greek press. "The ice of 12 centuries has cracked," the newspaper Kathimerini wrote. "John Paul II Changes History," blared a front-page headline in the Greek periodical Etnos.

Suspicions and prejudices of 1,000 years have not been forgotten, of course. Yet, after the Pope´s historic visit, the psychological and cultural wall that divided Catholics and Orthodox seems to be cracking.

In the case of these two Churches, this barrier is higher than the theological wall (differences in this area have been surmounted, as they were, in fact, excuses for the schism), and the political wall (Orthodoxy recognizes the primacy of the Pope but disagrees with the way his role is exercised).

On the eve of the papal visit, the Greek press was far more conscious than the Western press of the riskiness of the Pontiff´s bet.

"He will have to overcome the abyss of a millennium," said one Athens periodical. In fact, the Pope crossed the threshold of the Orthodox archdiocese slowly, leaning on his walking stick, taking a giant step with a petition for God´s forgiveness for the offenses of Catholics against Orthodox.

Luigi Geninazzi wrote in Avvenire: "John Paul II has knocked down another wall, as insurmountable as it is invisible, a barrier of mistrust and hostility that has kept the Greek-Orthodox Church and the Roman Church apart for 1,000 years."

He continued: "Whoever thought that after the Great Jubilee, the prayer at the Wailing Wall, and the moving revelation of Fatima, this Pontiff had nothing more to say, was, once again, mistaken. At the heart of the most intransigent Orthodoxy, where up until a few hours ago the most blasphemous anti-papal slogans had resounded, the echo of prolonged applause for Pope Wojtyla was heard.

"The scene was incredible: Those applauding were not just Primate Archbishop Christodoulos of Greece, but all the highest leaders of the Synod, 10 bishops and metropolitans seated before the Vatican delegation . (...) Suddenly, one had the impression that a great stone was being removed from the road toward unity."

Given that the Pontiff always looks for concrete ways to express his objectives, in Syria he proposed the goal, on the road toward unity between Orthodox and Catholics, of a common date for the celebration of the Easter.

Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim of Antioch responded positively. Moreover, he said the Orthodox had proposed it earlier. Technical aspects of the problem must still be resolved, however.

In Syria it also became clear that commitment to Christian unity is not only a matter for the Pope, patriarchs, bishops and theologians.

At the meeting with Orthodox and Catholic young people, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, there were cries to the pastors that the division of the Church is a scandal, and that reconciliation is an imperative. At one point, a young woman addressed her contemporaries by microphone and said: "Do you want the unity of the Church?" The participants´ yes was deafening. It was an unprecedented event in papal meetings.

The pilgrimage to places where the first Christian communities were established, witnesses of St. Paul´s conversion, posed the burning question of Christianity´s relation to Islam. The society of ancient Antioch, where Jesus of Nazareth´s disciples were first called Christians, today is 90% Muslim.

The papal trip highlighted the problem of the "clash of civilizations" that Samuel Huntington referred to in his book "The Clash of Civilizations and the Restructuring of World Order." This explosive, if at times simplistic, thesis states that, if the 19th century witnessed general conflict among nations, and the 20th century the conflict of ideologies, the 21st will experience the conflict of civilizations. In this scenario, for demographic reasons alone, Islam is regarded as the greatest danger, in the wake of the fall of Communism.

When the Bishop of Rome entered the Omayyad mosque in Damascus for the first time, 15 years after entering the synagogue in Rome, he sent a message that could be understood by the new global village: A new era of dialogue and cooperation has begun between Muslims and Christians.

This Pope, who in the first half of his pontificate seemed to link his history to European events, to the fall of walls that separated and continue to separate the Old World, is now drawing a much broader picture for his pontificate, which embraces Asia and Africa, and seeks to break the logic of the "clash of civilizations" and foster an era of dialogue and peace. In this respect, religions have an indispensable contribution to make.

When the Pope arrived in Syria, his visit seemed to be vulnerable to the manipulation of the press, especially some English-language news agencies. Following President Bashar Assad´s address, in which he accused Jews of betraying Jesus and Mohammed, there were elements of the press that seem to suggest that an alliance existed between the Vatican with the Arab world in the Mideast conflict.

Igor Man, a European expert on this conflict, and an editor of La Stampa newspaper in Turin, Italy, explained: "There were those in Israel who could not understand why the Pontiff did not reply to the invectives against Israel leveled by the president of Syria, in the Pontiff´s presence. The Pope listens. His task is not to debate. He says what he thinks is right. He does not follow the classic rules of diplomacy. He knows he has a mission to fulfill and he goes forward on his way."

The Holy Father spoke very clearly in Syria, in the presence of Assad himself. Before bidding farewell at Damascus international airport, he reiterated what he said upon his arrival: The solution of the Mideast conflict lies in dialogue and the implementation of various U.N. resolutions.

The Holy Father appealed "to all peoples involved, and to their political leaders, to recognize that confrontation has failed and will always fail."

The trips John Paul II has made to places of salvation -- Mount Sinai, the Holy Land and, most recently, Greece, Syria and Malta -- have been very different from his previous journeys. In general, his pilgrimages to other nations responded to concrete pastoral needs. However, the past week´s pilgrimage had evident prophetic characteristics, as he touched upon universal issues that affect the future of humanity in the global village.

Before climbing the steps of the plane that would take him from Malta back to Rome, John Paul II recapitulated the reason for his Jubilee pilgrimages: "In the places linked to the 2000th anniversary of the Savior´s birth, I have hoped and prayed for a great renewal of the faith among Christians."

This is how the Pope is carrying out the "new evangelization." It promises more surprises, such as the consistory of cardinals (May 21-24), and the trip to Ukraine (June 23-27). When John Paul II celebrates his 81st birthday next week, he will be thinking about the future.