As he traces the footsteps of the Apostle Paul in Greece, Syria, and Malta this week, Pope John Paul II also appears to be on a larger journey of Roman Catholic contrition.
During his trip to Israel last year, the pontiff apologized for Christian persecution of Jews. On Sunday, he sat with Muslim religious leaders in a Syria, during the first visit by any pope to a mosque. "For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness," he said. In Greece Friday, he asked pardon for his church's sins of "actions and omissions" toward the Orthodox world, and in particular the Crusade that resulted in the sacking of Constantinople, the headquarters of the Orthodox Church.
"I call him perhaps the most innovative pope we've ever had," says Vatican-watcher Wilton Wynn, author of "Keeper of the Keys," a book about the modern papacy. "He's been pushing the boundaries back. He feels the church has been static in recent centuries."
John Paul II has indicated that only by wiping the slate clean at this time can the Catholic church move forward, some observers say. The fact that the Western world has entered a new millennium seems to have heightened the pope's ardor to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
"Both as a Christian and as a Pole, he has a very strong perspective on the Millennium," says John Wilkins, London-based editor of the international Catholic weekly, The Tablet.
This pope has traveled more than any other, visiting more than 120 countries, in an attempt to reach the world with his church's message. Often the message has been forgiveness.
At St. Peter's Cathedral in March 2000, during the Catholic Church's Jubilee Holy Year of pilgrimage to Rome, the pope asked sweeping forgiveness of what he said were his church's sins committed over the last 2,000 years. At the same time, the Vatican released a document entitled "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and its Past Errors," acknowledging the church's involvement and guilt in such issues as the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Crusades.
"It's a theme of his papacy from way back," says the Rev. Gerald O'Collins, a professor of theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome. "I remember reading some of his retreat sermons before he became pope. There were also some of these things there."
The man christened in Poland as Karol Wojtyla is no stranger to the devastating effect of cultural clashes. He was raised a Catholic among persecuted Jews in a central European country tyrannized successively by Nazis and Communists. This experience seems to have left its mark. Arguably, a bigger event than the first-ever visit to a mosque Sunday, was Pope Paul II's visit to a Roman synagogue in 1986.
The pope sees the need, according to Mr. Wynn, to reach out to others with a new kind of evangelism, to go as a kind of witness into the world, and to show other religions that they are respected and that the Catholic Church is open to working together with them when possible.
"I think that he wanted to clear the decks. All these things like the Inquisitions and the mistaken Crusades were blocking [the church's relationship with the world at large]," says Wynn. "It was something that put Christians on the defensive. They couldn't deny what they had done, but they were forced to justify it. Now he says, 'We were wrong, we're sorry about it, and let's go on from here.' "
One reason for reaching out to other faiths, analysts say, is that John Paul II says the great religions must fight together against the common enemies of materialism and extreme individualism. Moreover, the pope has desired for years to mend relations with the Orthodox world, and Wynn sees it as the most likely candidate for "rapprochement," as he puts it.
The Catholic Church requires that the Eucharist be consecrated by priests who have been ordained in what they consider the apostolic succession, which includes the ceremonial "laying on of hands." Catholics would recognize Orthodox priests as so ordained, whereas they would not recognize ministers of many Christian faiths.
After centuries of schism, this could lead to an eventual opening to Catholics worshipping among Orthodox and vice versa, Wynn says.
The reception in the Orthodox world to the pope's conciliatory tone has so far been cool.
Dozens of Greek Orthodox monks protested the pope's visit to Greece. And Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, whom the pope has repeatedly said he wants to meet (and who has repeatedly rebuffed the pontiff) responded coolly to the pope's gesture in Greece.
The pope's apology seemed aimed mainly at the Crusades, said Alexy, adding, "It's necessary to see how this apology will be manifested in actions.'' Next month, the pope plans to travel to Ukraine, and this plan has upset the Russian Orthodox leader as well as those in Ukraine.
"I think the ultimate object was to have a great reunion of the church of the East and the church of the West," notes Mr. Wilkins. "But it's gone rather badly."
Unease exists also within the Catholic Church itself. Commentator Vittorio Messori wrote in yesterday's prestigious Corriere Della Sera daily, that there is a part of the Roman Curia (the church administrators) that says "John Paul II is distorting the past of the church, is risking exposing it to humiliation, is paying his respects to its persecutors, is interpreting ecumenism as syncretism, in which one religion seems to be as good as any other."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor