It is fifteen years since the passing of Pope John Paul II, whose life and teaching left an indelible mark in the heart of the world and the life of the Church. Terms and principles so precious to him — such as human dignity and freedom, social justice and solidarity, dialogue and Christian witness — became axioms and pillars of his ecclesiastical and pastoral ministry. Pope John Paul II eloquently articulated his conviction that the mission of the Church was to liberate humankind from all forms of oppression. He played a vital role in bringing down the walls of separation that had long imprisoned Eastern Europe.
From his long tenure as Bishop of Rome, one could spotlight his numerous pastoral travels or encyclical documents, underline his contribution to the reform of canon law, but also highlight his extensive inspiration and influence across religious and even political realms. Instead, let us call attention to three vital dates in his ecumenical encounters with the Orthodox Church and his fraternal relations with our predecessor Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios and us personally.
A Dialogue Begins:
November 30, 1979
Pope John Paul II initiated a new tradition by officially visiting the Ecumenical Patriarchate shortly after his election. At the Phanar, on the occasion of the Thronal Feast of the Church of Constantinople, we first met the new Pope in our capacity as Director of the Private Office of the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios.
On November 30, 1979, the Patriarch and the Pope issued a common declaration announcing the commencement of the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between our two Sister Churches. After the pioneering exchanges between their predecessors — Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, as well as Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras — who initiated the “dialogue of love,” it was time to launch the “dialogue of truth,” in order to dispel the misunderstandings and heal the wounds of the past on our way to unity.
A Declaration for Creation:
June 10, 2002
The ecological initiatives of the Orthodox Church, instituted by Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios in 1989, were continued and advanced throughout our tenure, especially through a number of international symposia, seminars, and summits that continue to this day. The Adriatic Symposium — an interfaith and interdisciplinary assembly held in the summer of 2002 — addressed the ethical dimensions of the ecological crisis and concluded with a historical Divine Liturgy in the Church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna on June 9, 2002.
On the next day, on June 10, 2002, delegates attended the closing ceremony in Venice, at the magnificent Palazzo Ducale, where another historical moment of ecumenical and environmental proportions unfolded. There, we were able to communicate via satellite link-up with Pope John Paul II in order to cosign the “Venice Declaration” — the first-ever joint text of the two leaders of Western and Eastern Christianity exclusively on ecological issues, emphasizing creation care as the moral and spiritual duty of all people. As we declared on that day: “Humankind is entitled to something better than what we see around us. We and, much more, our children and future generations are entitled to a better world, a world free from degradation, violence and bloodshed, a world of generosity and love.”
A Legacy for the Ages:
November 27, 2004
A third critical stage in our relationship with the late Pope was the return of sacred relics to the Church of Constantinople — a significant, albeit sensitive, matter for the relations between our Churches. In November 2004, the remains of St. Gregory the Theologian (†390) and St. John Chrysostom (†407) were restored to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Both saints had served as renowned archbishops of the prestigious capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Formerly treasured in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, the relics were subsequently relocated to Rome by way of Venice, leaving a dour and deep wound in the story of inter-Christian relations. St. John Chrysostom’s remains were placed inside St. Peter’s Basilica; St. Gregory the Theologian’s were originally preserved in the convent of St. Maria in Campo Santo, but later were transferred to the Cappella Gregoriana in St. Peter’s.
The relics remained there until we visited the Vatican in June 2004 on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of blessed memory, as well as of the 800th anniversary since the Fourth Crusade in 1204. In his address, Pope John Paul II officially apologized for the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade, to which we responded with a humble request for the return of the sacred relics “as a moral restoration of the spiritual legacy of the East, and a significant step in the process of reconciliation.” On November 27, 2004, following a solemn ceremony and procession led by Pope John Paul II in Rome, we escorted the relics of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom back to their home in New Rome.
It was arguably one of the final and finest charitable acts, as well as one of the most momentous and memorable ecumenical gestures — by the elderly and frail pontiff, our beloved brother in Christ.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew