Pope John Paul II—Interfaith Giant – By Paul Mckenna

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Pope John Paul II and Chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff
(Photo Credit: L'Osservatore Romano)

Pope John Paul II—Interfaith Giant

By Paul McKenna

 

“By dialogue, we let God be present in our midst, for as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God.”
Pope John Paul II

The religious face of this planet is changing. At a dramatic pace, more and more regions of the world are becoming environments of multiculture and multifaith. At the root of this phenomenon are international patterns of immigration. Over the past one hundred years, the profound and worldwide movement of peoples and cultures has provoked a meeting of religions that is new to history.

Pope John Paul II and Chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff (Credit: L’Osservatore Romano) This historic encounter of religions is accompanied by another remarkable phenomenon—the interfaith dialogue movement. The great faiths of the world are now talking to one another in a fashion that is new, exciting and challenging. And Christianity has joined the conversation.

In the last four decades, Catholics and Protestants worldwide have been seriously rethinking their attitudes toward other religions. And the Second Vatican Council is now seen as a watershed event in this new openness toward Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Indigenous Peoples and others. Indeed, the Church has come to recognize and respect the presence of grace, truth, and holiness in other religions.

Papal Ecumenists

Pope John XXIII was a natural-born ecumenist. For example, while serving as a Vatican diplomat in Greece and Turkey during the Second World War, Pope John did all he could to stop the deportation of Jews. So great an impression did he make upon the Jewish community of Rome that the Chief Rabbi and a number of his congregants went to St. Peter’s Square to pray for the dying pontiff during his final days.

John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council out of a conviction that the Church was in need of a renewal. The theological breakthroughs of this “Ecumenical Council” led to ground-breaking documents on interfaith dialogue, religious freedom and religious pluralism.

Pope John’s successor, Paul VI, dreamed of a Church in conversation with all the religions and cultures of the world. Pope Paul became the chief architect of the Secretariat for Non-Christians, a Vatican department for promoting relations with other faiths. In 1964, he published Ecclesiam Suam, the first encyclical in history to promote interreligious dialogue.

A Man From A Far Country

But nothing could have prepared us for the “man from a far country.” Indeed, who could have predicted that this new Pope from Poland would eventually emerge as one of the most influential interfaith figures of the twentieth century?

John Paul II readily embraced Paul VI’s commitment to dialogue and quickly expanded the Church’s interreligious outreach. To the interfaith task, the new Pope brought a practical, hands-on approach and a tireless capacity for travel. He made more than 100 trips abroad, visiting 129 countries. In most of his trips, this most global of Popes met with leaders of numerous faiths. In fact, he often requested such meetings, particularly in countries where Christians were in a minority.

Interreligious encounters became a staple of this Pope’s daily ministry in Rome. A prolific writer, he was responsible for an impressive number of documents, statements and speeches on the topic of interfaith. During John Paul’s pontificate, Sister Donna Geernaert S.C. was Director of Ecumenism for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops here is how she described John Paul’s conviction about interreligious dialogue:

“The Pope is convinced that all religions need to collaborate in the cause of humanity and that they need to do this from a spiritual perspective. Religious belief which teaches the value and dignity of all life urges men and women of good will to commit their energies to eliminate hunger, poverty, ignorance, persecution, discrimination and every form of enslavement of the human spirit. Without a spiritual framework, the Pope maintains, the world will not be able to adequately face the many problems of justice, peace and human development that call for urgent solutions.”

From his boyhood to the throne of Peter, Karol Wojtyla demonstrated a special sensitivity to Jewish-Christian relations, a gift that soon came to be recognized by Jews worldwide. Having lived through the horrors of Nazi occupation, he made the improvement of relations with the Jews a key goal of his papacy.

John Paul II forged dramatic new bonds with Islam. Religious and political leaders from the Muslim world regularly visited Rome to meet and consult with him. It is estimated that during his pontificate he had more than 150 meetings with Muslims.

This interfaith pilgrim met with representatives of many other religions as well. During his travels, he consistently demonstrated respect for local religious cultures, for example, Hinduism, Buddhism and Indigenous traditions.

A Church Penitential

Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the best-known interfaith activist of the twentieth century. He believed that one could not even begin the interfaith conversation unless one was somehow possessed of the gift of humility. In tune with this Gandhian wisdom, Pope John Paul recognized that there will never be reconciliation among the world’s religions without the necessary first steps of confession, forgiveness and restitution.

The authenticity of his ecumenism was evidenced by a willingness to publicly admit the historical mistakes of Catholics, particularly when those mistakes involved the mistreatment of people of other faiths. And despite protestations from people at various levels of the Church, this Pope persevered in this process of reconciliation, a process which he described as “a healing of memories.”

Highlights of John Paul’s interfaith journey

The papal interfaith career of Karol Wojtyla began in 1978. Let us now map his courageous route:

1978     FIRST PAPAL AUDIENCE

The new Pope surprises everyone by granting his first papal audience to a Jewish friend from his childhood.

1979     AUSCHWITZ

During his first papal tour of his native Poland, John Paul visits Auschwitz. In so doing, he becomes the first Pope in history to visit a former Nazi concentration camp.

1979     CHRISTIANS & MUSLIMS IN TURKEY

In his first trip to a predominantly Muslim country, the Holy Father addresses the Christian population of Turkey: “It is urgent today, when Christians and Muslims have entered a new period of history, to recognize and develop the spiritual bonds which unite us in order to safeguard and foster, on behalf of all mankind, social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.”

1981     A MUSLIM GREETING IN THE PHILIPPINES

Governor Ali Dimaporo of the Province of Lanao del Sur, speaking on behalf of the Muslims of the Philippines, addresses the Pope during his papal visit there: “Your Holiness’ visit is doubly significant for us Muslims, for it conveys with great emphasis the universality of the search for peace and love. Christians and Muslims must love and understand one another…we Muslims…look up to your Holiness and the Christian congregation as those described in the Holy Qur’an as the nearest people to ours.”

1984     BUDDHIST HOSPITALITY IN THAILAND

During his papal visit to Thailand, the Holy Father is invited to a Buddhist temple. This encounter is followed by papal words of praise for the “ancient and venerable wisdom” found in Buddhism and “its special sensitivity to the renunciation of violence.”

1985     MUSLIM YOUTH

At the invitation of the King of Morocco, John Paul visits Casablanca where he addresses 80,000 Muslim youth on the values common to Christianity and Islam.

1986     VISIT TO ROME’S SYNAGOGUE

The pontiff’s visit to Rome’s chief synagogue marks the first time in history that a Pope enters a Jewish house of worship. In his speech, John Paul reiterates the Second Vatican Council’s condemnation of all discrimination toward Jews.

1986     WORLD DAY OF PRAYER FOR PEACE

Pope John Paul invites leaders of the world’s religions to Assisi, Italy, to pray and fast for world peace. In so doing, he becomes the first prominent religious leader in history to convene such a gathering.

1986     THE RELIGIONS OF INDIA

At the beginning of his pastoral visit to India, a predominantly Hindu country, the Holy Father emphasizes his immense respect for the many religions of this ancient culture and he prays for dialogue and interreligious cooperation. (Hindus form 80% of India’s population Christians less than 2%.)

1987     APOLOGY TO CANADA’S FIRST PEOPLES

During his visit to Fort Simpson, North West Territories, the Pope apologizes for any role the Church played in the destruction of Native culture in Canada.

1987     AFFIRMING NATIVE CULTURE

In Phoenix, Arizona, John Paul addresses a Native gathering: “The early encounter between your traditions and the European way of life was….a harsh and painful reality for you. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the destruction of your life, your traditional societies must be acknowledged….I encourage you to keep alive your language, your culture, the values and customs which have served you well in the past. These things benefit not only yourselves but the entire human family.”

1988     PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE

The Secretariat for Non-Christians is renamed the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The Council, which is both a sign and a structure of the Church’s desire to dialogue with other religions, is very much an expression of the Holy Father’s interfaith goals.

1989     A CALL TO REPENTANCE

Rabbi Jack Bempoard of Lawrence, New York, comments on the Pope’s initiatives in Jewish-Catholic relations: “By Jewish standards, John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church have begun their repentance. It can only become perfect with time, when it is the personal repentance of every Catholic in the world.”

1990     THE ENCYCLICAL, REDEMPTOR HOMINIS

This important mission encyclical contains a strong interreligious theme. John Paul declares, “Each member of the faithful and all Christian communities are called to practice interfaith dialogue.”

1991     A GREETING TO MUSLIMS

Since 1967, the Church had been sending an annual greeting to all the world’s Muslims at the end of Ramadan, a month of fasting. This year, the Holy Father gives the message himself because he wishes to pledge the Church’s support to victims of the Persian Gulf War and to the cause of peace in the Middle East.

1991     THE GREAT RELIGIONS OF ASIA

Speaking in Rome, the Pope reflects on the Church’s dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists:
“Dialogue with the great religions of Asia recalls for us the universal value of self-discipline, silence and contemplation in developing the human person and in opening hearts to God and neighbour.”

1992     VATICAN II & THE MUSLIMS

In his address to Muslim leaders during a visit to Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country in Africa, the head of the Catholic Church quotes from the documents of Vatican II: “The Church has a high esteem for Muslims, who worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men [and women].”

1992     SLAVERY

In a symbolic gesture of fellowship with those who suffered the humiliation of slavery, the Pope visits the Senegalese island of Gorée, the main point of departure for over 20 million slaves shipped to the Americas: “I have come to pay my respects to all the unknown victims…unfortunately our civilization which calls itself Christian turned its back on the practice of slavery.”

1993     WARSAW’S JEWISH GHETTO

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw uprising, the Holy Father dedicates the following words to the Jewish community in Poland: “As Christians and Jews, following the example of Abraham, we are called to be a blessing for the world (Genesis 12:2). This is a common task awaiting us. It is, therefore, necessary for us, Christians and Jews, to be first a blessing to one another.”

1993     ISRAEL-VATICAN ACCORD

Israel and the Vatican establish full diplomatic ties, easing centuries of discord. Pope John Paul figures as a major player in this dramatic breakthrough.

1993     ISRAEL’S CHIEF RABBI

John Paul meets with the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau. This first-ever official encounter between a pope and a chief rabbi from Israel takes place at the Pope’s summer residence.

1994     BISHOPS OF THE ARAB REGIONS

The Pontiff addresses the Bishops of the Arab Regions: “Be scrupulous in seeking interreligious dialogue with Judaism and Islam make a constant effort to understand one another better work constructively in different areas encourage the development of persons and a harmonious society.”

1994     WORLD CONFERENCE ON RELIGION AND PEACE

Pope John Paul gives the inaugural address at the international assembly of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, held in Italy. This organization, which is the largest interfaith body in the world, works for justice and world peace by promoting cooperation among religions.

1994     BISHOPS OF BANGLADESH

Speaking to the Bishops of Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country, the Pope declares that the Church must respect the religious traditions and cultures of all peoples.

1994     FIGHTING RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE

In recognition of Pope John Paul’s “embrace of the Jewish people” and his battle against religious intolerance on a worldwide scale, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith (USA) publishes a Hebrew version of A Letter to A Jewish Friend. This book chronicles Karol Wojtyla’s childhood friendship with a Jewish boy.

1995     “THAT ALL MAY BE ONE”

John Paul publishes Ut Unum Sint, a major encyclical on interchurch cooperation. The Pope’s ground-breaking overtures toward other world religions are complemented by his efforts to achieve unity among Christian denominations.

1995     NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD

The Holy Father wins the National Jewish Book Award (USA) for his volume, Spiritual Pilgrimage: Texts on Jews and Judaism. This book is a collection of the Pope’s writings (1979-1995) on Jews and Judaism.

1995     GREETING TO BUDDHISTS

During his visit to Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, John Paul asserts: “I express my highest regards for the followers of Buddhism with its four values of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity…I reassure everyone of the Catholic Church’s desire for interreligious dialogue and cooperation.”

1996     THE ENVIRONMENT

Speaking to a Muslim-Christian conference on the environment, the Pope tells scholars of both religions that the world’s resources are limited and it is a “specific moral duty” to conserve them for future generations.

1997     LEBANON

Muslims and Christians line the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, to cheer the Holy Father during his papal tour.

1997     POPE ADMITS CHURCH CULPABILITY

An Italian journalist publishes a book about the Pope in which he claims that on 94 occasions, John Paul II has publicly acknowledged the Church’s mistakes. These mistakes include the past mistreatment of Jews, Protestants and Indigenous Peoples.

1997     VATICAN SYMPOSIUM – “ROOTS OF ANTI-JUDAISM IN THE CHRISTIAN MILIEU”

Addressing this symposium which brought together fifty Catholic theologians, the pontiff says, “In the Christian world….erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people….have circulated too long engendering feelings of hostility toward this people.”

1997-2000     A TIME OF RENEWAL

In anticipation of the Jubilee Year, the Holy Father in 1997 implements a three-year period of general renewal for the Church. He identifies ecumenical and interfaith dialogue as a “fundamental task” during this preparatory time.

1998     PAPAL PRAYER FOR JEWS

At the request of the bishops of Poland, the Pope composes a prayer for Jews, which is subsequently read on Poland’s annual day of reflection on the Jews and Judaism, providing a broader model worldwide for how Catholics should pray for Jews.

1998     CATHOLIC-MUSLIM DIALOGUE COMMISSION

With support from the Holy Father, Muslim and Vatican officials establish the first permanent, official channel for discussions between the two religions.

1998     THE INQUISITION

At John Paul’s urging, the Vatican sponsors an international symposium in which the Church examines itself in terms of the Inquisition. Protestants, Muslims and Jews were persecuted during the Inquisition period.

1998     WE REMEMBER: A REFLECTION ON THE SHOAH

In a long-awaited document on the Holocaust, the Church expresses repentance for those Christians who failed to oppose Nazi persecution of the Jews. The reflection was written at the request of the Pope.

1998     CATHOLIC-JEWISH WORKING GROUP

With support from John Paul II, the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee establishes a working group of Catholic and Jewish historians and theologians to examine together Vatican archival materials released by Pope Paul VI dealing with the history of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust period.

1998     INVITATION TO THE HOLY LAND

The Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority agree to co-host a papal visit to the Holy Land.

1999     POLAND’S MUSLIMS

John Paul meets with Muslim leaders in his native Poland.

1999     MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN DIALOGUE

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami visits Pope John Paul at the Vatican to discuss the improvement of Muslim-Christian relations on a worldwide scale. This meeting signals a major step forward: Khatami is president of the 55-nation Muslim Conference.

1999     MAHATMA GANDHI

In his second visit to India, the Pope prays and pays homage at a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. This celebrated Hindu saint and apostle of nonviolence endures as a courageous symbol of interracial, intercultural, and interreligious cooperation.

1999     INTERRELIGIOUS SUMMIT AT THE VATICAN

The Vatican welcomes 230 representatives of the world’s religions to search for ways to promote harmony among religions in the new millennium. This gathering of interreligious leaders, the largest ever convened by the Roman Catholic Church, succeeds as a colourful and powerful testament to the persevering interfaith spirit of Karol Wojtyla.

2000     POPE ASKS FOR FORGIVENESS

In a Penitential Ceremony held at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, John Paul asks God to forgive the Church for acts of hostility and contempt toward the Jewish people.

2000     PAPAL VISIT TO ISRAEL

During John Paul’s historic visit to Israel, he visits Judaism’s holiest site, the Western wall, and offers a prayer asking God to forgive “those who have caused these children to suffer.”

2001     JOHN PAUL VISITS MOSQUE

During his trip to Damascus, Syria, John Paul II becomes the first Pope in history to visit and pray in a mosque.

2001     INDIGENOUS PEOPLES OF AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND AND THE PACIFIC ISLANDS

The Pope issues a formal apology to the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands for injustices perpetrated against them by the Church.

2005     JEWISH LEADERS THANK POPE

One hundred and sixty Jewish leaders from around the world travel to the Vatican to thank John Paul for his extraordinary efforts in promoting Jewish-Catholic dialogue

About the author and editorial consultants

Author

Paul McKenna teaches, writes and consults in the fields of world religions and interfaith dialogue. Currently, he functions as co-ordinator of the Interfaith Department of Scarboro Missions.

Editorial consultants

Kathy Gillis is the editor of Scarboro Missions Magazine. She designed the Scarboro Missions Golden Rule Poster which has achieved international renown as an educational and interfaith resource.

Sr. Lucy Thorson is a member of the international Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sion (NDS) which is dedicated to increasing understanding about Judaism and the Jewish people and to deepening Christian-Jewish relations. She has many years of experience in the field of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Sr. Lucy works in the Interfaith Department of Scarboro Missions.

David Warren SFM is a priest member of Scarboro Missions and worked for a number of years in the Philippines. In recent years he has done academic studies in Islam, the Arabic language and inter-religious dialogue. Fr. David is committed to building bridges between Christians and Muslims.

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