Whatever you think about the papacy, it has an unmatched zeal for, and institutional commitment to, Christian unity over the long haul. And nobody was more committed to this for twenty-seven years than the late Pope St. John Paul II, who both inherited and advanced the clear mandate of the Second Vatican Council to make ecumenism one of the Church’s major priorities.
While supporting ecumenical dialogue—especially among theologians and scholars—the late pope almost single-handedly grasped that Christians also had to pursue more than just a statement of consensus on, say, Christology or the number of sacraments. (Having had a hand in drafting statements of this type during my work with the World Council of Churches, I can tell you that no person in the pew even knows they exist!) Also needed was honest acknowledgement of the fact that—as the late and great Jesuit historian Robert Taft used to say—“nobody has clean hands” when it comes to the violence with which Christians have sometimes attacked and even killed one another since at least the divisions occasioned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Such horrifying events have left traumatic memories, and it was the pope’s gift to see this and then to stress our need for the healing of those memories. In doing so, he struck out on a singular path. As the theologian Bruno Forte argued in 2000: “John Paul II’s … own contribution to a ‘puriﬁcation of memory’ … [is] an undeniable novelty.”
This “novel” idea was regularly invoked for a quarter-century. I have elsewhere documented and analyzed at length the many instances of the pope speaking and writing about the “healing of memories” or the “purification of memories.” Let me just give some highlights here, and then see where we are now a hundred years after his birth and fifteen years after his death.
The first instance seems to have come in May 1980. Addressing an ecumenical gathering in Paris, the pope, noting the “dynamics of the movement toward unity” went on to insist that “our personal and community memory must be purified of the memory of all the conflicts, injustice and hatred of the past. This purification is carried out through mutual forgiveness, from the depths of our hearts”
The closer the turn of the millennium the more this phrase was used and developed. Between 1994 and 2001 it shows up regularly in papal travels and speeches, as well as documents of the Roman Curia, leading one commentator, Luigi Accattoli, to note that “With the passing years, the concept of a ‘purification of memory’ has become a fundamental password in the pontificate of John Paul II.”
In 1995, in his truly landmark encyclical Ut Unum Sint—given 25 years ago and which I wrote a book about—the pope opens with a call for a renewed “commitment to ecumenism…which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories.”
By 1998, plans for the millennium were in high gear. In the bull Incarnationis Mysterium announcing it, the pope said that the Church needed “first of all, the sign of the purification of memory.”
In 1999, the International Theological Commission, under the aegis of Cardinal Ratzinger, published what I have long regarded as one of its most sophisticated and important documents, titled “Memory and Reconciliation”. It took John Paul’s skeletal phrases about healing and purification and put a lot of meat on the bones. Responding to some criticism of the papal call for repentance of past sins and purification of memory, the ITC wrote that “every act of ‘purification of memory’ undertaken by believers … is [for] the glorification of God” before clarifying that this process has to be undertaken with careful theological and historiographical criteria in mind (discussed below).
Exhortations to heal Christian memories came the following year in the unique liturgy held in the Vatican basilica on the first Sunday of Lent in 2000, in which the pope again insisted that “that the purification of memory and the request for forgiveness be translated into a commitment of renewed fidelity to the Gospel on the part of the Church and each of her members.”
In 2001, on the first of three trips that year to the overwhelmingly Orthodox countries of Greece, Armenia, and Ukraine, the pope, likely aware of the protests against him on the streets of Athens, took the wind out of the sails of hatred when he spoke bluntly and movingly at length:
Certainly, we are burdened by past and present controversies and by enduring misunderstandings. But in a spirit of mutual charity these can and must be overcome, for that is what the Lord asks of us. Clearly there is a need for a liberating process of purification of memory. For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox sisters and brothers, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of the Lord. Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret. How can we fail to see here the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the human heart? To God alone belongs judgement, and therefore we entrust the heavy burden of the past to God’s endless mercy, imploring God to heal the wounds which still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people.
Later that year, on his trip to Armenia, the pope hinted in his homily in the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator in Yerevan that his use of the phrase was perhaps not novel to him after all:
In his letter to the Byzantine Emperor, Nersès Šnorhali set out principles of ecumenical dialogue, which have lost none of their relevance. Among his many insights, he insists that “there is a need for the healing of memories in order to overcome past resentments and prejudices.” … The insights of the great Armenian Doctor are the fruit of remarkable pastoral wisdom, and I make them my own among you today.
There were still other uses almost to the end of his life, but the point is clear that this was a major concern of the late pontiff. But forty years after these exhortations to healing first began, and fifteen years after the pope’s death, where are we?
My view is that the need for healing remains greater in Catholic relations with the Christian East than with any Western Protestant tradition. So let me briefly essay a few more words on the healing of Catholic-Orthodox memories that go beyond what I spoke about almost four years ago here on CWR.
When I last wrote on this theme in 2016, I spoke of the healing of memories by and with our Orthodox brothers and sisters on the eve of their great council in Crete in June. By that point, 2016 had already turned out to be a very important year for advancing Orthodox-Catholic healing, beginning in February with the Cuban confab between the pope of Rome and patriarch of Moscow (a meeting John Paul II had long desired but was never given).
The very next month, March, saw the 70th anniversary of the pseudo-sobor of Lviv, an uncanonical gathering of Catholics under duress in Lviv, Ukraine, in March 1946 at which they “freely” voted to “reunite” with the Russian Orthodox Church. Officially and regularly from 1946 to 1986, Russian Orthodox Christians celebrated Lviv as the “return of the uniates” to their “mother” Moscow. Catholics have always seen it as a profoundly traumatizing blow advanced by Stalin with active and utterly bewildering Orthodox support.
But on Forgiveness Sunday in March 2016, for the first time ever, numerous prominent Orthodox clergy and scholars signed a public letter denouncing that event by which the Ukrainian Catholic Church was suppressed for nearly half a century and forcibly reincorporated into the Russian Orthodox Church. This was without doubt a profoundly important gesture from the Orthodox in the search for the healing of Catholic memories.
In June, at a conference at the University of Vienna, which I attended and whose proceedings I have edited for publication with Daniel Galadza (which should be in print late this year), Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs and scholars gathered to give even deeper focus on Lviv, asking whether we were both at the point where we could begin to construct (as the ITC document “Memory and Reconciliation” recommended) a new narrative and “memory” of the future (a kind of anamnesis) drawing us closer to unity. The conference was not entirely successful in this regard, but nonetheless it did propel us forward, revealing what work remains to be done on the Russian side.
Nevertheless, there are more recent and more hopeful signs. These have increased with Constantinople’s granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church last year. With Russia thereby losing control over much of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in 2019, the latter remains free to deepen the healing in its already amicable and often co-operative relationship with Ukrainian Catholics.
Going forward, if we are to continue to honor the legacy of Pope John Paul II, we would do well to implement many of the recommendations of the ITC document, where it noted that Christians must recall a basic point of moral theology with regard to offenses against each other in the past: “subjective responsibility ceases with the death of the one who has performed the act; it is not transmitted through generations; the descendants do not inherit (subjective) responsibility for the acts of their ancestors” (s.5.1). If we believe this, then today’s Greek Orthodox would never regard today’s Roman Catholics as responsible for the Fourth Crusade, and today’s Ukrainian Catholics would not hold their Russian Orthodox contemporaries responsible for the events of 1946—nor the Russians hold Catholics alive today as responsible for the Union of Brest of 1595-96, which has functioned for some Orthodox as a clear example of what Vamik Volkan has called a “chosen trauma”.
If we can be freed from mutual recriminations in the present, only then, the ITC suggests, are we free at last to seek proper healing and purification of past memories. This is a twofold process. First, it “means eliminating from personal and collective conscience all forms of resentment or violence left by the inheritance of the past.” Second, we are now open to receive the gift in which the “memory of division and opposition is purified and substituted by a reconciled memory to which everyone…is invited to be open and to become educated” (s.5.1).
If we remain open to be educated anew by the witness and teaching of Pope John Paul II, then we will not flag or fail in our desire to heal as soon as possible the divisions within Christianity, and to allow our memories of the same to be healed by being consigned—as Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras simultaneously advocated in 1965—“to oblivion.”
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