ATHENS, Greece, MAY 4, 2001 ( In a historic "mea culpa" after arriving in Athens, John Paul II asked God to forgive Catholics for sins committed against Orthodox Christians during their 1,000-year separation.

The first day of the Pope´s pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul were filled with ecumenical moments. In the morning, the Bishop of Rome visited Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece. In the afternoon, the two leaders pronounced a joint declaration between Catholics and Orthodox. Later, Archbishop Christodoulos visited the Pope at the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican representation in Athens, as a sign of gratitude for this historic event.

At his first meeting with Christodoulos, the Roman Pontiff clarified the purpose of his visit.

"Clearly, there is need for a liberating process of purification of memory," he said. "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."

John Paul II referred specifically to the event that caused the most wounds between Catholics and Orthodox: the Fourth Crusade of 1204, which, instead of going to the Holy Land, ended in Constantinople.

Catholics from the West pillaged the city, the symbol of Orthodoxy, and tried to occupy it politically to impose the Latin rite and Latin jurisdiction on the Byzantine Church.

"Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day," John Paul said.

"I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East," he continued. "It is 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.

"How can we fail to see here the ´mysterium iniquitatis´ at work in the human heart? To God alone belongs judgment and, therefore, we entrust the heavy burden of the past to his endless mercy, imploring him to heal the wounds that still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people."

He added: "Together we must work for this healing if the Europe now emerging is to be true to its identity, which is inseparable from the Christian humanism shared by East and West."

The Orthodox archbishop, who refused to join the Pope in common prayer meetings, applauded these words.

Before the Pope´s address, Archbishop Christodoulos, in polite but hard words, had reproached the Pontiff for the historical faults of Catholics. He requested a petition of forgiveness for the centuries of grievances, from the 11th-century schism, to the lack of public condemnation of the division of Cyprus after the Turkish invasion.

"Traumatic experiences remain as open wounds in the vigorous body" of the Greek people, Christodoulos said. "To date, not even one single petition for forgiveness has been heard."

The Pope, who read the words Christodoulos was pronouncing with great attention, said that reconciliation between the Orthodox and Catholics is possible. He recalled that in 1965, in a joint action Pope Paul VI and the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople canceled the sentence of excommunication between Rome and Constantinople.

"This historic gesture stands as a summons for us to work ever more fervently for the unity that is Christ´s will," John Paul said. "The Catholic Church is convinced that she must do all in her power to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight his paths; and she understands that this must be done in company with other Christians -- in fraternal dialogue, in cooperation and in prayer."

Later, in a historic first at the Areopagus, the Greek Orthodox and the Pope pronounced a declaration together. The document begins with the acknowledgment of the apostolic succession of the Bishop of Rome and the Orthodox archbishop of Athens, and relates the Catholic and Orthodox as sister Churches.

"We condemn all recourse to violence, proselytism and fanaticism in the name of religion," the document states. "We especially maintain that relations between Christians, in all their manifestations, should be characterized by honesty, prudence and knowledge of the matters in question."

The declaration was significant, in part, because it was pronounced by the leader of a country in which Orthodox theologians consider the Catholic Church to be heretical.

On Saturday the Pope flies to Syria, where he will make an appeal for Mideast peace. On Tuesday he heads to Malta. There he will preside at a beatification ceremony for two Maltese priests and a nun.