Pope John Paul II, in a sweeping statement of regret aimed at healing Christianity's east-west divide, begged God's forgiveness Friday for sins committed by Roman Catholics "against their Orthodox brothers and sisters," including the plunder of the Byzantine capital by 13th century Crusaders.
His powerful and unexpected gesture came during the first visit by a pope to Greece, an Eastern Orthodox stronghold, since the schism of 1054. It drew warm applause from Orthodox clerics who until two months ago had demonized the pope and refused to welcome him.
It was a papal act of mea culpa diplomacy on a par with the visit last year to Jerusalem's Western Wall, where John Paul sought pardon for centuries of Catholic torment of the Jewish people. That historic pilgrimage solidified the Vatican's relationship with Israel, furthering the pope's goal of building bridges to other faiths.
Now the ailing John Paul, who turns 81 on May 18, is focusing his dwindling energy on the Catholic-Orthodox rift as one of the final challenges of his long papal reign. Vatican officials said they hoped the 24-hour visit here will facilitate his dream of a similar groundbreaking journey to Russia, whose Orthodox leaders view him with hostility.
As 5,000 riot police cordoned off central Athens to keep protesters far away, John Paul told Orthodox clerics at their archdiocese headquarters that estrangement between humanity's 1 billion Catholics and more than 200 million Orthodox Christians "is a sin before God and a scandal before the world."
In scattered parishes across Greece, 97% of whose citizens are baptized Orthodox, priests and monks rang church bells in a symbol of mourning while black balloons bearing the message "Pope go home!" rose from an Athens square. Plans for large-scale street protests fizzled after the Orthodox hierarchy appealed for calm.
But although they welcomed the white-robed pontiff, black-clad Greek church leaders used the occasion to vent widely felt historic grievances.
Orthodox Christians broke with Roman Catholicism in a dispute over papal authority, and nearly 10 centuries of perceived historical injustices have widened the breach. Greek protesters this week distributed unsigned leaflets holding the pope responsible for 29 Vatican "errors" before his reign, including alleged complicity with, or support for, brutal Turkish and Nazi occupations of such Orthodox lands as Greece and Serbia.
Addressing his guest, Greek Archbishop Christodoulos highlighted a couple of others: forcible proselytizing by Greek Catholics loyal to the Vatican and what he called "the destructive mania of the Crusaders," who sacked Constantinople in 1204 and overthrew the Orthodox-backed Byzantine emperor.
A formal condemnation of such wrongs, Christodoulos told John Paul, "would facilitate . . . a spirit of constructive dialogue" between Catholics and Orthodox. "Yet until now, there has not been heard even a single [Catholic] request for pardon."
John Paul's reply came very close to that.
"For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg of him," he said, prompting Christodoulos to smile and lead a round of hearty applause.
The two men later embraced, and the archbishop gripped his frail guest's arm as they walked side by side.
John Paul singled out the plunder of Constantinople, now Istanbul, as an example of Catholic sin. In an animated voice, he called it "disastrous" and "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," he added.
In the same speech, and in remarks to Greek political leaders, John Paul spoke repeatedly of the "great debt" Catholics owe Greece for the contribution of its ancient culture in shaping Christian humanism.
Christodoulos told reporters that he was happy with John Paul's message. "The pope was very nice to us," he said. "But of course there are still problems between our two churches that we have to face."
The archbishop's spokesman, Haris Konidaris, said he regretted that the pope did not mention the problem of the Eastern Rite churches, which follow many Orthodox traditions but are loyal to the Vatican. Orthodox leaders in many countries view the Eastern Rite as an attempt to undermine their churches.
Catholics and Orthodox disagree on other issues: whether to use unleavened bread in the Eucharist and to require that priests be celibate, and how to interpret the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. While the Catholic Church recognizes Orthodox sacraments as valid, the Orthodox Church does not reciprocate; the Greek Orthodox Church ruled out a joint prayer service during John Paul's visit.
Above all, Orthodox leaders reject the Vatican's claim that the pope is an infallible interpreter of theology and that Catholicism is superior to other Christian faiths.
Given such vast theological differences, the personal warmth between the pope and the archbishop here was striking, as was the respectful tone of their exchanges.
"We're experiencing today what two months ago was unthinkable," said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. Until then, the two churches behaved "like neighbors who live in the same building and share water and electricity but don't say hello in the hallways," he added.
The Greek church had resisted Vatican overtures for two years, agreeing to the visit only after President Costis Stephanopoulos traveled to Rome in January and invited the pope as a fellow head of state.
Until his plane landed here Friday morning, John Paul's habitual gesture of kissing the soil of a country on a first visit was in doubt, because of fear that it would incite Orthodox zealots. John Paul kissed a basket of soil held by two children from Greece's tiny Catholic community. Reversing initial plans, Greek television stations carried papal events live.
John Paul has visited other Orthodox countries--Romania and Georgia--and plans to go to Ukraine in June, despite the objections of that nation's leading Orthodox Church.
But his visit here was far more significant. Greece and Russia are viewed as the twin pillars of faith in the Orthodox world; the pope's warm reception in Athens, Vatican officials believe, might encourage other, more recalcitrant Orthodox churches to view him more favorably.
Christodoulos plans to travel to Moscow today for meetings with Russian Orthodox leaders.
John Paul is on a six-day pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul, whose sermons on Athens' Areopagus hill helped sow Christianity in the seat of ancient European culture. The trip also will take the pope to Syria and Malta.
On Friday evening, he and Christodoulos sat amid ancient ruins on Areopagus, flanking a portrait of the apostle, while spokesmen read out a "common declaration." It embraces the goal of ecumenism, rejects violence in the name of religion and laments the secularization of Europe.