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Pope John Paul II

03 April 2005

Pope John Paul II has been among the most outstanding personalities during these last decades, with an impact far beyond the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian community world-wide. During his pontificate, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed its universal vocation and strengthened its internal coherence. His commitment to social justice and reconciliation, to human rights and the dignity of the human person, as well as to Christian unity and inter-religious understanding, will be gratefully remembered.

We recall with warm feelings the visit John Paul II paid to the WCC headquarters, early in his pontificate in 1984, where we shared a worship service at the chapel of the Ecumenical Centre and prayed together for full communion among Christians. He was not only following the steps of his predecessor Paul VI, who had visited the WCC in 1969, but also expressing his own commitment to the one ecumenical movement.

Karol Wojtyla, born in Wadowice, Poland, on 18 May 1920, was elected pope in 1978. During his pontificate, through his extensive travels, the ad limina visits, his impressive body of writings and by purposefully using church structures (e.g., the synods of bishops), he sought to bring cohesion and coherence to the Roman Catholic Church.

In the first half of his pontificate, John Paul II focused on the situation of people living under communist rule. With a combination of quiet diplomacy and strong denunciation, he developed an ecclesial and political "Ostpolitik" and strengthened those taking a stand against Marxist ideology, particularly in his native Poland. During this period, an intentional focus on human rights (particularly in Redemptor hominis) and religious liberty provided a strong basis for challenging Marxist ideology and communist practice.

During the second half of his reign, Pope John Paul II sought to challenge the predominant values in Western culture, to question what he saw as permissive trends in human sexuality, and to affirm "the culture of life" over and against "the culture of death". This was most evident in the various social encyclicals published during his time - Laborem Exercens, Solicitudo Rei Socialis and Centessimus Annus. In this restatement and development of Roman Catholic social thought, he was able to initiate a dialogue on appropriate structures and foundations for human life in society.

The systematic examination of major features of the Christian faith, and of the issues facing the church throughout the world also demonstrated John Paul II's concern for affirming the central truths of the faith and the Roman Catholic Church . This was evident in the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the issuing of a number of doctrinal instructions. (e.g., Ad Tuendam Fidem).

Having consciously adopted the name John Paul on his election to office, Karol Wojtyla was not simply seeking to honour his immediate predecessor, but to continue and complete the reforming work of Pope John XXIII and Paul VI. In his work, therefore, he also sought to promote relations with other Christian churches and engage in the search for Christian unity with them.

An immediate concern was rapprochement with the Orthodox churches, and he constantly sought to strengthen and develop the bonds between the "successors" of the brothers Andrew and Peter. In his visits throughout the world, Pope John Paul II took every opportunity to meet with leaders of other churches and to encourage his Roman Catholic colleagues to engage fully in local ecumenical initiatives and councils.

Of particular interest is his attempt to offer a vision of unity; his encyclical Ut Unum Sint draws on the insights and experiences of Roman Catholic involvement in the ecumenical movement, and offers substantial reflections on the nature of dialogue and unity. Indeed, this encyclical is unusual in citing reports from the wider ecumenical movement - notably that of the WCC Faith and Order Commission.

To further the moves towards unity, John Paul II in the Encyclical invited other churches to reflect with him on the role and structure of the Petrine ministry as a servant of Christian unity; he also invited his church to apologize for the sins committed during its history which contributed towards division. This was most evident during the Millennium Celebrations in Rome on 13 March, 2000, when he sought forgiveness from other churches for sins committed against them by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church.

As Bishop of Rome, the Pope initiated a series of events and reflections on the work and being of the Holy Trinity to celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. This drew Christians of different churches in all parts of the world into an intentional ecumenical process at local and international level and provided encouragement for local ecumenism.

Efforts were also made to seek dialogue with people of other faiths. On two occasions at Assisi, the Pope invited leaders of the major world religions to join him to pray for world peace - in 1986 , and in January 2002 (the latter in the light of the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 on the United States and the subsequent actions) - and to promote a culture of peace to counter the prevailing culture of war.

His strong proclamations and actions for peace, particularly in the two Gulf wars and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have been particularly important. By lifting up this common concern of churches worldwide and the ecumenical movement as a whole, he strengthened the voices of Christians everywhere working to overcoming injustice and promote lasting peace.

The pontificate of John Paul II has bridged in a courageous way a period of profound changes and transformations in the church and in the world. A new era and a new millennium have begun, which will require fresh responses in the Roman Catholic Church and in the ecumenical movement.