Pope John Paul II prayed in a synagogue and also met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He returned the relics of Orthodox saints and apologized for past church-inspired wrongs such as the Crusades, which caused widespread bloodshed in the Middle East, and the Inquisition, which led to the deaths of many Jews in Spain.
During more than 100 international trips that spanned the almost 27 years of his pontificate, the pope tried to open doors long closed by religious bigotry, suspicion and - sometimes - violence. He talked, dined and prayed with Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Maronites, Anglicans, Lutherans, Native Americans and many other leaders of different world faiths.
"There has always been some distrust, and some of the most brutal wars have in history been fought in the name of religion," said Imam Earl El-Amin, leader of the Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore.
"But this pope was a visionary, and he moved out on his faith to have his flock meet in dialogue and develop lasting relations that will help the whole human family," said El-Amin, who met with the pontiff in Italy in 1996 and 1997.
El-Amin's praise for the pope was part of an outpouring of sympathy from religious leaders around the globe after Pope John Paul's death Saturday.
"The Jews have lost a best friend," said the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a professor of law at Georgetown University and Jesuit priest who once served as a congressman from Massachusetts. "The pope was fantastic toward the Jewish community, just remarkable. He saw the decimation of the Jews in Poland, saw the historic anti-Semitism, and knew that anti-Semitism was a sin."
"I know he had a particular affection for the Jewish people, and he told me this privately," Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore said yesterday. "Because he grew up with Jewish friends in Wadowice [in Poland], and then came back after the Holocaust and found they were no more."
During lunches and other meetings in Rome, the pope talked frequently about the one hometown friend from Poland whom he found living in Rome, Jerzy Kluger, a Jew who for decades remained one of the pope's confidants, Keeler said.
When the pope traveled to Baltimore in 1995, among the friends Keeler brought to Baltimore-Washington International Airport was Willard Hackerman, a Baltimore contractor and observant Jew, Keeler said.
Hackerman extended his hands over the pope's head, and gave him a blessing in Hebrew, Keeler recalled. In return, the pope raised his palms over Hackerman's head and blessed him in Latin.
To commemorate the pope's efforts to reach out to people of different faiths, Keeler said he will lead an interfaith service at 4:30 p.m. today at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.
Although previous pontiffs avoided recognizing the state of Israel, Pope John Paul established full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, exchanging ambassadors for the first time in 1994.
Earlier, in 1985, the pope met with Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. And the next year, he praised Jews as "our elder brothers" during a historic meeting at Rome's Central Synagogue.
Rabbi Joel Zaiman, rabbi emeritus of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville, said that Jews over the centuries had been persecuted by the church and treated as "pariahs that could hardly expect salvation" because they had "refused to accept Jesus."
Pope John Paul was the first Catholic leader to teach that a person couldn't be fully Christian unless he or she acknowledged Christianity's roots in Judaism, Zaiman said.
"Progress is a mild word to describe what this pope accomplished in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations," Zaiman said. "In terms of the church and the Jewish people, it's similar to when the wall fell down in Berlin. It opened up all sorts of possibilities."
Tensions occasionally flared between Jews and the Roman Catholic Church during the pontiff's more than a quarter-century of guiding the billion-member church.
For example, some protested in 1994 when the pontiff conferred a papal knighthood on Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president and United Nations secretary-general, who had been accused of complicity in Nazi war crimes during service with the German army during World War II.
The pope also met with Arafat, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, several times, stretching back to 1982. "Obviously, many in the Jewish community objected to that," said Rabbi Charles Arian, Jewish staff scholar at the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies, a Baltimore-based national nonprofit organization. "But there is no doubt that Pope John Paul wished Jewry and Israel well."
Drinan, a professor of law at Georgetown University and a Jesuit priest, said the pope also reached out to Muslims, Anglicans and the Russian Orthodox.
Last fall, the pope sought to repair relations with the Orthodox Church, which had parted with the Roman Church in the schism of 1054.
After a request by the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I, last November, the pope returned the remains of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian, which were considered sacred relics. Orthodox Christians said the relics of both had been removed from Constantinople when Catholic crusaders sacked the city, now Istanbul, in 1204. The Vatican said Byzantine monks had brought the bones of one of the saints, Gregory, to Rome in the eighth century.
The relics were returned during a service at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
"It was a very beautiful occasion of togetherness," said Archbishop Demetrious, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, who attended the service.
As part of his ecumenical outreach, the pope had lunch in his Vatican apartment in 2001 with leaders of the Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Apostolic Armenian and other Christian churches.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun