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A dedication to interfaith understanding

Sunday, April 3, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:44 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Beyond Vatican City and the sanctuaries of 1 billion Catholics around the world, Pope John Paul II will be remembered not only as an advocate for his church’s moral beliefs, but also as an eloquent voice for Christian unity.

Local religious leaders, scholars and adherents of various faiths all point to significant moments in the papal legacy that have improved interfaith relations.

The Rev. Dean Panagos of St. Luke’s Greek Orthodox Church calls John Paul “a very dear friend” to the Orthodox Church, which separated from so-called Western Catholicism in 1054. He was the first pope to visit Romania, a country with a mostly Orthodox population, since the schism.

“Theologically, Christ’s desire is for one Church,” Panagos said. “Division is contrary to the Gospel.”

The East-West Schism, or Great Schism, was caused by disagreements over papal authority, including a statement of faith that identifies the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father and the Son. During Vatican II, Pope Paul and Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I jointly expressed regret for actions that led to the split. Though differences remain between the two churches, John Paul continued to work to improve relations. During a visit to Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader to Eastern Orthodox Churches, John Paul stressed the importance of unity among disciples of Christ, a recurring theme of his papacy.

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Pope John Paul II visits the San Mattia parish church near Rome on March 14, 1999. (AP)

“Believers in Christ, united in following in the footsteps of the martyrs, cannot remain divided,” he said.

Nor has there been a pope who contributed as much time and effort to improving the relationship between Christians and Jews, said Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom.

In 2000, John Paul strengthened diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel by visiting the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest shrine and the only relic of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple that was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans.

“I remember the picture on the tube when he went to visit the Western Wall,” Feintuch said. “He wrote a prayer which he had placed in a crevice between the huge stones that make the wall. This is an indelible memory that symbolized the pope’s recognition of the sacredness of this place.”

The act, which recognized the Jewish belief that God reads and listens to prayers recited or inserted between the stones, was significant to all Jews — as were the pope’s visits to a Roman synagogue, the first of any papacy, and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

“He knew about Jews,” Feintuch said. “He grew up with them, and he learned how to respect them, and it was completely manifest in almost everything he has done that impacts Jewish-Catholic relations.”

The pope’s efforts at promoting unity among religions also extended to Eastern Europeans, MU professor of history Lawrence Okamura said. By holding strongly to his beliefs and backing the Solidarity workers’ opposition movement against pro-Soviet Communists in his native country, John Paul helped to end Communism in Eastern Europe despite pressure from the government, he said.

“Because he is Polish, he has the same ethnic cultural background as many East Europeans who are Orthodox, and apparently his Catholic faith has impressed many Eastern Europeans,” Okamura said. “I think he bore witness to Eastern Europeans about Catholic Christianity at a time when Soviet Union was the only standard of spiritual values.”

John Paul furthered the dialogue between Christians and Muslims with two unprecedented papal visits to Arab countries. In Lebanon in 1997, he urged Christians and Muslims to make peace in the country that had been battered by civil war. Four years later, he visited the Omayyad mosque in Syria.

John Paul’s repeated pleas for the religions of the world to join their voices together to pray for peace resonate with local Buddhists. Kathleen Ross is a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, which focuses on reforming and reorienting the self to a more positive view of humanity. She said John Paul’s message of compassion is consistent with a Buddhist’s ultimate goal of human happiness. She thinks he could not have done more for the good of humanity.

“Any person of great stature and influence that supports what we support is huge, because that enables us to make greater strides in our own objectives, which is to help people solve conflicts peacefully,” she said. “His legacy of dialogue and bridging gaps and healing wounds is by far his greater legacy to those of us who are not so closely involved with the details of his mission.”

Through his 26-year tenure as pope, John Paul encouraged dialogue among religious, political and cultural leaders to prevent catastrophe, said Jill Raitt, MU professor emerita of religious studies and founder of the Center for Religion, the Professions and the Public. Even as he grew increasingly ill, his suffering riveted the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike, she said.

“He is determined to show that suffering is also a part of the human condition,” Raitt said.

More than 20 years ago, John Paul became the first pope to preach in a Lutheran church. In 1999, he signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Lutheran World Federation, which affirmed agreement among the faiths that humans are saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. For the Rev. Dave Benson of Campus Lutheran, while such efforts weren’t motivated by theology, they emphasized how positive Christian leadership can promote communication and cooperation among all denominations.

“I think it is important that there be as much understanding between the different faiths as possible to promote a peaceful coexistence at least,” he said. “There are certain differences that are not going to be resolved, but certainly the pope is one who has tried to promote as much cooperation to exist together as neighbors in the world.”

Though John Paul succeeded in reaching people of all faiths and in breaking down barriers that have divided Christians for more than a millennium, some people hope for improvement in the next papacy. Rabbi Feintuch said Jews have long wanted to see the archives of Pius XII, the pope who led the Roman Catholic Church during the Holocaust — or what John Paul will only refer to as the Shoah, meaning “calamity” in Hebrew.

The failure to open the archives is one issue in which John Paul’s leadership “did not produce the positive results that Jews worldwide would like to see,” Feintuch said. “Jews believe (Pius XII) had done nothing in order to protect or try and call upon the Nazis and their collaborators all over Europe to refrain from meddling and massacring the Jews. In his capacity to prevent it, all he had to do is to say those who are going to shed the blood of the innocent, including Jews, are going to end up in hell.”

Other Catholics said the next pope should strengthen the relationship between the church hierarchy and the laity, as outlined in the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, or Vatican II. Lumen Gentium, a key document of the council meaning “Light of the Nations,” called on the laity to “throw light” upon the affairs of the Church and urged the clergy to recognize the mission of the Catholic Church as a “common undertaking.”

Raitt specifically mentioned the need for the church to listen to voices from around the world and not to “dictate from within its own little group.” She suggested more lay advisory boards to bishops and pastors, and said church leaders should rely on lay people with specific skills, such as economists, psychologists and other professionals.

John Paul’s successor, Raitt said, should consider himself, as John Paul did, a servant of the people who will continue improving interfaith relations while bridging the divide between the church hierarchy and its believers.

“We need people who want to lift up the whole people of God and are willing to wash their feet and not ask that their feet be kissed,” she said. “We’ve had some wonderful bishops, popes and leaders, but the tendency has been an almost military attitude of hierarchy. The Church is the body of Christ, and the laity are the majority and not to listen is just arrogant.”


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