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When the Pope left the Vatican for a meeting of healing

When Pope John Paul II hosted a number of bishops from the ancient non-Catholic churches of the East, the location of the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls was significant

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Papal Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls (Basilica Papale di San Paolo fuori le Mura) is one of four major basilicas in Rome, Italy. In 2001, it was the location where Pope John Paul II hosted a number of bishops from the ancient non-Catholic churches of the East and Daniel Peterson, along with three other Latter-day Saints, were invited to attend. The location, Daniel Peterson writes, was significant.

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In this column, taking an unusually autobiographical approach, I’ll briefly relate part of an experience that I had in company with three other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In early 2001, I was in Rome with Elder V. Dallas Merrell (an emeritus General Authority), Gary Miller and Daniel Oswald as we were seeking to launch a collaboration between Brigham Young University and the Vatican Apostolic Library. (The collaboration did eventually occur, quite successfully.)

During our visit, we spent considerable time with Edward Cardinal Cassidy, a genial Australian who was concluding his tenure as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. (We also met with his recently announced successor, the equally affable German theologian Walter Cardinal Kasper, formerly the Catholic bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.)

At one point, Cardinal Cassidy asked us if we would care to attend a meeting in which Pope John Paul II would be hosting a number of bishops from the ancient non-Catholic churches of the East. Of course, we jumped at the opportunity.

The meeting occurred on Jan. 25, 2001, in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (San Paolo fuori le Mura), which was originally built by the Roman emperor Constantine over the traditional burial place of the apostle Paul.

Even in our most formal Latter-day Saint ecclesiastical attire of dark suits, white shirts and ties, we felt distinctly underdressed, surrounded as we were by scores of bishops clothed in amaranth red and cardinals swathed in scarlet. When the aging Pope himself passed by, roughly 20 feet from where we stood, I was acutely aware of standing in the presence of a person of world historical significance. Declared a saint in 2014 and now known to many as St. John Paul II the Great, he was, in my judgment and that of very many others, a pivotal figure — along with President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — in the defeat of communism and the end of the Cold War.

Holding that meeting in Saint Paul Outside the Walls was, I believe, a deliberate and conscious choice by the Pope. Although solidly within the urban area of modern Rome, it takes its name from its location outside the third-century “Aurelian walls” of the ancient city. More importantly, it commemorates the memory of the “apostle to the gentiles,” who opened the world, beyond the people of Israel, to the gospel. Most importantly, it isn’t St. Peter’s Basilica, that massive architectural monument to claims of papal supremacy.

St. Peter’s would have been an inappropriate setting for the message that John Paul II hoped to send, as some general Christian history will clarify:

After the passing of the apostles, leadership of the rapidly-growing Christian movement fell to its local leaders, the bishops — in Greek, “episkopoi” (literally, “overseers” or “supervisors”). The larger a bishop’s city, the greater his power. The more ancient and “apostolic” his congregation, the greater his prestige and authority. Eventually, certain especially powerful bishoprics emerged, in Greek-speaking metropolitan centers such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople, and, in the Latin West, Rome. And then, when imperial Rome collapsed, its bishopric — the papacy — survived as the most stable and venerable of western institutions.

The bishops of Rome began to claim paramount authority because of their city’s connection with the two great apostolic martyrs Peter and Paul. Their fellow bishops to the east, however, contested that claim. Their authority, they said, was equal to Rome’s. However, the rise of Islam in the seventh century and the rapid Arab conquests thereafter greatly weakened the sway of the Eastern bishops, all of whose cities fell under Muslim rule. With the passage of generations, the Eastern churches shrank as Christians accepted the doctrine of Muhammad.

Diminished numbers, however, failed to weaken the claims of the Eastern bishops. And such competing assertions of episcopal and apostolic authority continue to pose an obstacle to efforts at restoring the unity of Christendom. Relations between Greek-speaking East and Latin-speaking West were rocky for long centuries before their dramatic rupture in the mutual excommunications of the so-called Great Schism of 1054, when the Latin church and the Greek church broke off relations with each other.

John Paul II’s 2001 meeting in Rome was part of a decades-long effort to heal the breach between the churches. Requiring his brother bishops from the East to meet him at St. Peter’s might have offended them. A wise and good man, he did not make that error.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directsMormonScholarsTestify.org, chairsinterpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily atpatheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.