The Pope stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations yesterday and called on the organisation to transform itself into a "family of nations" that fosters greater equality and mutual trust between its members.
Sealing a new bond between the Vatican and the UN, John Paul II spent several hours at the organisation's New York headquarters, conferring with the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and acknowledging the adoration of hundreds of cheering staff members.
The Secretary-General and his wife presented a medallion to the Pope, who in turn gave them small boxes with rosary beads.
The visit to the UN, during which he also said prayers before a memorial to UN workers who have died carrying out their duties around the world, was billed by the Vatican as the centrepiece of the Pontiff's five-day trip to the United States, which will include a huge open-air mass in Central Park, New York, tomorrow and conclude with a visit to Baltimore on Sunday.
In a philosophical and often dense address to the assembly, the Pope suggested that because of changing conditions around the world - in which freedom is threatened by extreme nationalism and the continuing inequality of the developing South and the industrialised North - the UN should be primarily concerned with resolving conflicts.
The UN, he declared, needs to "rise more above the cold status of an administrative institution and to become a moral centre where all the nations of the world feel at home and develop a shared awareness of being, as it were, a 'family of nations'."
Underlining the threat represented by extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism - what he called the "fear of difference" between different groups - he warned that they can "lead to a true nightmare of violence and terror". As examples, he cited the recent conflicts in former Yugoslavia and central Africa. Bosnia was a central topic of the Pope's meeting with Mr Boutros-Ghali.
Without offering prescriptions, the Pope indicated that the UN should undertake internal reforms to meet the responsibilities he sees for it. "This is the high road which must be followed to the end, even if this involves appropriate modifications in the operating model of the United Nations."
Echoing the complaints long expressed by developing countries in the UN that their needs have been pushed aside by the larger nations, and particularly by the five permanent members of the Security Council, the Pope added: "In an authentic family the strong do not dominate; instead, the weaker members, because of their very weakness, are all the more welcomed and served."