John Paul II: Diagnostician of Divisions, Doctor of Ecumenism

In the encyclical Ut Unim Sint, given twenty five years ago, the late pope wrote about “the necessary purification of past memories,” a consistent and urgent theme of his pontificate.

Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople embrace on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica following three days of private meetings in 1995. Twenty-five years ago St. John Paul II's encyclical on ecumenism, "Ut Unum Sint," put the papal seal of approval on a shift in the Catholic Church's approach to the search for Christian unity. (CNS photo/Arturo Mari, L'Osservatore Romano)

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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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


  1. The Greek orthodox are degenerating . The Russian Orthodox remain strong! They will not follow the declining path led by Bergoglio.

    • Mr. Kelley,
      It’s not of major importance if the Russians don’t follow the Greeks. This is a slow process. Making full peace with any of the Eastern Patriarchs will be a gargantuan step forward. If it’s only the Greeks, that’ll be fine for now.

  2. I for one dispute the very premise that those Catholics who *were* “responsible for the Union of Brest of 1595-96” were guilty of any wrongdoing at all. Eastern Orthodox Christians need to live with the fact that Catholics consider theirs to be the one and only true religion, just as Orthodox believe the same thing of themselves. No Catholic expects any Orthodox to repudiate any conversions to Orthodoxy, and Orthodox ought not to expect Catholics to repudiate converts to Catholicity.

  3. Beautifully written essay on purification of memory conditional to reconciliation. Mutual forgiveness. That demands utter honesty, not an easy condition. Adam DeVille’s autopsy of centuries of conflict deadening the integrity of our Mystical Body reveals the underlying illness, if I may describe as righteousness of self. We may understand larger conflicts by analogy with our own experiences in life. Evil suffered as a youth in Brooklyn is forgiven precisely as DeVille recommends citing John Paul II. Although mutual forgiveness differs. Again utter honesty is the constant barrier. Now I may be accused of opening the old wound of the Sack of Constantinople, mentioned in this essay. A Fourth Crusade ill managed from the start ending in grievous evil. I look to Christ for example. He always offered his opponents a venue for salvation. So Brooklyn honestly assessed recognizes my own part in inciting evil and the good in those who inflicted evil. Very few of us are evil in toto. It may be new for some that Constantinople in 1204 was an international commercial mecca, primarily Greek but inhabited with large populations of Latin traders shipping entrepreneurs and even a sizable Muslim population [the Venetians began their assault on the mosque defended by Muslims and Orthodox]. The Massacre of the Latins, the Roman Catholic inhabitants of Constantinople by the usurper Andronikos Komnenos and his supporters in May 1182 had a dramatic effect on the politics between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. Merchants mainly from Pisa, Venice, Genoa. 1204 after the deposition and murder of Angelos massacre of Latins occurred again, historians consider this a trigger for the Venetian assault followed by the French knights. Mutual forgiveness is best realized with utter honesty. Although I may have to agree with Deville in citing John Paul and Benedict that it may come down to a simple decision to forgive as Christ forgave his accusers at Golgotha, and as he forgave us.

    • As a postscript few know that Latins defended Constantinople and died with Greek Orthodox during the final Ottoman assault 1453. Western Christians came to help defend the city on their own account. Cardinal Isidore, funded by the pope, arrived in 1452 with 200 archers. An accomplished soldier from Genoa, Giovanni Giustiniani, arrived with 400 men from Genoa and 300 men from Genoese Chios, in January 1453. As a specialist in defending walled cities, he was immediately given the overall command of the defence of the land walls by the emperor. Around the same time, the captains of the Venetian ships that happened to be present in the Golden Horn offered their services to the Emperor, barring contrary orders from Venice, and Pope Nicholas undertook to send three ships laden with provisions, which set sail near the end of March.

      • For the historical record: A note on the amazing life saga of Cardinal Isidore [of Kiev]. Born in S Greece entered monastic life eventually Gk Orthodox prelate. Appointed the Metropolitan of Kiev by then Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, with sanction to elicit Russian Orthodox support for reunion with Rome, was instead jailed, escaped to Rome and made a Cardinal by Pope Nicholas V. Isidore continued to pursue reunion with the West, a marvellous feat he came close to accomplishing having gained considerable Orthodox support. “December 1452, on the eve of the city’s fall to the Turks, Isidore solemnly announced to the hard-pressed Byzantines in the basilica of Hagia Sophia ‘Holy Wisdom’ the union of the Greek and Latin churches. Although the court and hierarchy were agreeable, the people rejected relations with the papacy. Isidore and his staff then joined in the futile defense of Constantinople” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Isidore was captured, escaped to Crete and returned to Rome. It seems Emperor Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos threatened by Mehmed II and Turkish conquest was prepared for reunion. Had Pope Nicholas V the opportunity to gain sufficient military support from the West to defend the city unity may have been achieved.

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  1. John Paul II: Diagnostician of Divisions, Doctor of Ecumenism - Catholic Mass Search
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