The Pope visited the patriarch in Damascus, Syria, on May 5. On that occasion, as a sign of their quest for unity, the Holy Father proposed that Catholics and Orthodox celebrate Easter on the same date.
That wish will be fulfilled in Syria. Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham recently signed a decree by which the faithful of his Church will celebrate Easter according to the Orthodox calendar.
In addressing the patriarch, John Paul II expressed his suffering in seeing that the process of unity is still being delayed. But he acknowledged the Greek-Orthodox leader as one of the pioneers of the rapprochement between Christians East and West.
"I know, Beatitude, that like me, you never cease to pray, reflect, work and urge others to smooth the way toward unity," the Pope said. "The theological dialogue should not be at the mercy of the winds of discouragement or the drift of indifference and lack of hope."
Recalling his trip to Syria, John Paul II said: "It was the renewal of the promise made at the beginning of my pontificate, to make the path toward unity one of my pastoral priorities."
Antioch is the see of the Greek-Orthodox patriarchate, although the patriarch resides in Damascus. It is the same city mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, where Christ´s followers were first called Christians.
Following the meeting, Patriarch Ignatius described John Paul II to the press "as one of the great men of the 20th century."
"Both he and I have spent all our life for the cause of unity," he said. "In fact, unity is part of the very essence of the Church. The Church can only be one. Evidently today we must work on the meaning of this unity.
"The Lord constituted one Church, an apostolic body formed by Twelve Apostles. It is up to us to conform to his intentions by working for the unity of this Church. For this reason, unity has always been at the center of our action, and we have consecrated our life to it."