Although they are often overlooked or grouped into the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox make up the third largest group of Christians in the world, numbering some 85 million. Throughout his pontificate, John Paul II spent a great deal of time in dialogue with these churches, leading to much fruition. Although he received many Oriental Orthodox leaders formally and did not publish common declarations or do public gestures, the tenor of his pontificate, like that of his predecessor Paul VI was decidedly pro unity with the Oriental Orthodox. To this end, in January of 2003, John Paul established a commission to dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox as a whole, and this regular dialogue continues to this day.
Shortly after being elected as Catholicos of Cilicia, the penultimate see of the Armenian Apostolic Church in 1983, Karekin II made a formal visit to Rome on April 15th-19th. At the conclusion of this visit, a Joint Communique was published calling for the two churches to enter into more intentional dialogue to promote unity with one another for the salvation of the world. This dialogue reached its culmination in a Joint Declaration published on December 13th, 1996, following an official visit of Karekin I, formerly Karekin II of Cilicia, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians to Rome. This declaration stated, like that between Paul VI and the Copts that the two churches agree on the long divisive issue of how to define Christ’s natures, although they have different terminology to describe it. The following month, as part of the Week of Christian Unity, The Catholicos of Cilicia, Aram I, was formally received at a papal audience and was present at a papal Mass on January 25th, after which another Joint Declaration, calling for the work of unity to continue. The homily, preached by John Paul, was centered around the ecumenical mandate that is incumbent upon all Christians and was shown by the relationship between the Catholicos and the Pope. Yet another Common Declaration was published by the Pope and the Catholicos of All Armenians, Karekin II (Note: different man than the Karekin II of Cilicia) on November 10th, 2000, affirming the shared faith in Christ, understanding of the sacraments, and understanding of the Church. Karekin was in Rome to commemorate the 1700th anniversary of Armenia converting to Christianity, the first country to do so. On his trip to Armenia in 2001, to commemorate the end of the jubilee year celebrating Armenia’s conversion, the first time a Pope had been to Armenia.
John Paul and Karekin jointly celebrated an ecumenical liturgy on September 26th, and the day after this liturgy, published a final Common Declaration, once again affirming the call to unity.
On June 18th, 1984, His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and Supreme head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church in addition to His Beatitude Mor Baselios Paulose II, Catholicos of the East and local head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in India, Archbishops Mor Gregorios Yohanna, Mor Yulius Yeshu` Çiçek and Mor Severious Isahaq, arrived at the Vatican for a summit to conclude the theological dialogues begun in 1971 between Patriarch Ya`qub and Pope Paul Vl.
After being present for the Corpus Christi celebrations over their six day stay, a Common Declaration was published on June 23rd. This Common Declaration stated that there was no division of faith between the faith of the Syrian Orthodox and the Roman Catholics for who Christ was. These agreements were strengthened by further Common Declarations in both 1990 and 1994. At an ecumenical service at St George’s Patriarchal Cathedral in Damascus on May 6th, 2001, both John Paul and Patriarch Ignatius Zakka gave homilies calling for the two churches to continue to build their bonds of charity.
In 1984, Mar Dinkha IV, Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East made an official visit to Rome. This visit saw the beginning of ten years of dialogue between the Church of the East, long perceived as Nestorian, and the Roman Catholic Church. Ten years later, on November 11th, 1994 Dinkha again made an official visit. Following the official reception, he and John Paul signed a groundbreaking Common Declaration on Christ’s natures, stating that the Church of the East and the Roman Catholic Church share a common faith. This summit also saw the creation of annual dialogue meetings that in 2001 saw the recognition of their Eucharist, and a shared communion agreement, due to the small and sparse population of Eastern Christians who are in union with Rome or are part of the Church of the East. The importance of this shared communion agreement cannot be overstated. Not only did the Roman Catholic Church and an Eastern Church come to a shared communion agreement, but, and this was scandalous for some Roman Catholics, the Anaphora used by the Church of the East, the Anaphora of Addai and Mari, which is one of the oldest anaphoras used does not have the Institution Narrative. This agreement showed not only an economy of sacramental sharing, but laid the groundwork for liturgical theology to be interpreted in the most charitable way possible, and liturgy lived out without capitulation to the larger church for the promotion of Christian unity.