Throughout his pontificate, John Paul sought to improve the relationship between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church. One of his goals was to see the unity of the East and West before the new millennium. Although that was something he never saw, his pontificate saw many breakthroughs between the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Some two years after being elected, on November 29th-30th, 1979, John Paul visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the celebration of the Feast of St. Andrew, the patronal feast of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Pope attended the divine liturgy celebrated by Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios. In addition, the two jointly celebrated a prayer service focusing on unity. This visit was also the occasion of the signing of a new Common Declaration where the two bishops congratulated their predecessors’ work and also stressed the need for continued dialogue so that not only the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches could work toward unity, but that all Christians could work toward, and realize, unity.
Eight years later, from December 3rd to 7th, 1987, Dimitrios visited the Vatican for the commemoration of 1200 years of the convening of the Seventh Council of Nicaea in 787, the last universally-recognized ecumenical council. The Ecumenical Patriarch was in attendance for the papal Masses in the Vatican, and was invited to join John Paul in the final blessing as well as to join the Pope in addressing the people in St. Peter’s square and bless them from the balcony of St. Peter’s.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, elected in 1991, visited Rome from June 27th-30th, 1995 to celebrate in the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, the patronal feast of Rome. On June 29th, the Feast Day Ss. Peter and Paul, the Ecumenical Patriarch attended the papal liturgy, where the Nicene creed was recited in Greek without Filioque. Following the liturgy, another Common Declaration was signed by the two, where they recounted the meetings and milestones of their predecessors in the journey toward unity and in the continued dialogue focused on how best to proclaim the Church of God in unity as sisters.
From May 7th-9th, 1999, John Paul’s long unfulfilled wish of visiting an Orthodox nation was fulfilled. At the invitation of Patriarch Teoctist of the Romanian Orthodox Church, John Paul visited Romania, making it the first time a Pope had visited a predominately Eastern Orthodox Country. During this visit, each bishop attended a liturgy another celebrated as a show of unity.
Three years later, Teoctist would repay the visit to the Vatican and attend Mass, sitting in a chair beside the pope throughout and giving a reflection during the liturgy.
On a visit to Greece on May 4th, 2001, John Paul, the first pope to visit Greece in nearly 1300 years formally apologized for the wrongs Roman Catholics had committed against the Eastern Orthodox. Later that same day, at the Areopagus, he and Metropolitan Christodoulos, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece signed a Common Declaration acknowledging the sins of the past and congratulating the work of peace and unity among people. The two then prayed the Lord’s Prayer together with the assembled people. Two days later, in Syria, the Pope prayed at the Umayyad Mosque, the first time a Pope had been in a mosque. There, he prayed at (one of the many reputed) shrine where the head of John the Baptist is buried, with many Christian and religious leaders. Following the World Day of Prayer for Peace in June of 2002, Bartholomew and John Paul had a private meeting before a Common Declaration was issued on the care for creation.
In 2004, in commemoration of the Fortieth anniversary of Paul and Athenagoras’ meeting the Ecumenical Patriarch was in Rome from June 28th to July 2nd. Again, a common creed was used at the liturgy for the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul, and he was invited to join in blessing the people with the Pope. A Common Declaration calling for the world of the past forty years to be built upon and the work of unity to continue. What is noteworthy is that at this meeting, the Ecumenical Patriarch formally requested the relics of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom be restored to the Church of Constantinople, which the Pope announced would happen. The handoff occurred at a ceremony beginning with the Patriarch at the Vatican from November 26th-27th and ending with the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of St. Andrew in Istanbul on November 3oth, with Cardinal Kasper in attendance, representing the Pope.
This meeting on November 26th and 27th would be the last time John Paul and Bartholomew would meet. Following his death on April 2nd 2005, Bartholomew attended his funeral, a first since the Great Schism.
One of the great unfulfilled desires of John Paul was to go to Russia and to begin to build ecumenical relationships with the Russian Church. Although he never visited Russia, and the ecumenical relationships were testy because of accusations of proselytism and the erection of Roman Catholic dioceses in Russian territories, John Paul was dedicated to this cause until the end. On August 25th, 2004, he had a ceremony marking the returning of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan to the Moscow Patriarchate, which happened on August 28th by Cardinal Kasper.