What it demands of all of us is that, holding to what we believe, we listen respectfully to one another, seek to discern all that is good and holy in each other’s teachings, and cooperate in supporting everything that favors mutual understanding and peace.
Pope John Paul II
The nearly 27-year papacy of John Paul II was a milestone in world history. He was greatly beloved by millions, hailed for some of his stands even beyond the membership of his own church and was criticized for other stands, surely a sign of his engagement with many of the difficult and contentious issues of the contemporary world. As the first Polish-born pope, the selection of Karol Jozef Wojtyla was a break with a long-standing tradition of electing Italian popes in the Catholic Church. His election brought fresh energy to the world-wide Catholic community, an excitement that was augmented by his frequent travels. The visit to his homeland of Poland played a role in mobilizing the opposition to Soviet Communism, which eventually brought down the Iron Curtain. But it was his teaching and symbolic actions in inter-religious relationships that bring him to our attention in this collection of interfaith peacemakers.
John Paul directly addressed the two deepest areas of religious alienation for Christians, namely the alienation of Christians with Jews and with Muslims. In addition, he took steps to heal divisions within the Christian community, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant churches. He backed up his action with clear statements that moved the interfaith discussions significantly forward. John Paul was the first pope to visit a synagogue (in 1986), a mosque (in 2001), and Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the Anglican Church (in 1982).
During his visit to the Synagogue in Rome, where he embraced Rabbi Toaff, John Paul repudiated interpretations of the death of Jesus that imputed collective blame on Jews as a people, past or present. He also repudiated any acts of persecution against Jews. He visited Auschwitz in 1979, praying for the dead and expressing his abhorrence for the acts of genocide committed against the Jewish people. He apologized for the silence and inaction of the Catholic Church related to the Holocaust and organized a special reflection, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, for which he wrote the introduction calling on Catholics and Jews to work together for a world where such horror would never happen again.
As head of state at Vatican City, he recognized the State of Israel, yet also continued to recognize the plight of the Palestinian people. He lifted up a vision of Jerusalem as a meeting place of heaven and earth, a place where not only people from the three Abrahamic religions could come together, but where all people could encounter each other and encounter God in peace. In 2000, the Pope went on a pilgrimage to Israel during which he prayed at the Western Wall, inserting a written prayer for forgiveness for Christian actions against Jews in the past. Given the historical burden of hundreds of years of Christian antisemitism, often sanctioned by some of this Pope’s predecessors, many Jews thought John Paul did not go far enough in writings such as the Reflection. Nevertheless, the Anti-Defamation League said of John Paul: “More change for the better took place in his 27-year papacy than in the nearly 2,000 years before.”
Though John Paul did not give as much attention to relationships between the Catholic Church and Muslims as he had with the Jewish community, there were still some historic milestones experienced in the Christian-Muslim inter-religious journey through his leadership. In 2001 Pope John Paul II visited the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, becoming the first Pope ever to visit a mosque. He said, “For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness.” He kissed the Quran on that trip, which brought him severe criticism from some Catholic quarters but was deeply appreciated by many of the world’s Muslims.
Twice John Paul convened interfaith prayer services for peace in Assisi. He was a special friend of the Dalai Lama, as they shared together their burdens of religious repression from Communist governments and desires for world peace. He issued many statements of apology and asked forgiveness for actions taken throughout history by various leaders of the Catholic Church. Sometimes he was joined by others in mutual expressions of openness. Sometimes he was met with suspicion or demands to do more. Whatever the response to his actions, he sought to heal many long-standing rifts caused by religion, especially by his own Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II took steps that few others in his position have been willing to take.
In his address to Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders in Jerusalem in 2000, John Paul said: “The Catholic Church wishes to pursue a sincere and fruitful inter-religious dialogue with the members of the Jewish faith and followers of Islam. Such a dialogue is not an attempt to impose our views upon others. What it demands of all of us is that, holding to what we believe, we listen respectfully to one another, seek to discern all that is good and holy in each other’s teachings, and cooperate in supporting everything that favors mutual understanding and peace.”
This charge can help all of us to build stronger interfaith relationships with respect and spiritual integrity.
Meet more peacemakers
This profile on Pope John Paul II comes from the pages of my book, Interfaith Heroes 2. Interfaith Heroes 2 is one of the three books that inspired this website. Learn more about Daniel Buttry’s series of books on global peacemakers.