Urging Christians to persevere on the uphill road to unity, Pope John Paul II repeated this week his willingness to reexamine the exercise of papal power in an effort to end centuries-old divisions.
The pope, speaking to about 4,000 pilgrims attending his general audience during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, called the search for full communion among Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants a "fundamental task."
The 82-year-old pontiff reiterated the willingness he first expressed in his 1995 encyclical "Ut Unum Sint: On Commitment to Ecumenism" to reexamine his powers as leader of the world's 1 billion Catholics.
"It appears to me to be useful to propose a common reflection on the ministry of the bishop of Rome, with the aim of finding a way of exercising the primacy, which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation," he said.
Papal primacy, especially when coupled with papal infallibility -- which Orthodox and Protestant churches do not formally recognize -- is a major issue in ecumenical dialogue.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, sounded a pessimistic note in a recent interview with Vatican Radio. The impetus toward unity has become "slower and also more tired" in recent years, Kasper said.
Dialogue between Catholics and the Protestants has stalled over the issues of the ordination of women and abortion, he said. Also, the fall of communism produced strains between the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, Kasper said.