THE POPE'S MOST DELICATE TRIP? A PREVIEW
On Thursday, May 4, Pope John Paul II will leave Rome to begin the 93rd foreign voyage of his
pontificate. Although the plans for this trip have not been subjected to careful analysis in Western
Europe and the Americas, this could be the most delicate and even dangerous of all the Pope’s
The director of Rome’s Fides news service, Father Bernardo Cervellera, provided an astute
preview of the trip. In an editorial that appeared in the Fides bulletin, Father Cervellera wrote:
"The Vatican organizers say this journey is the most difficult, not because of the Pope’s age but
because of the consequences of millennial divisions, narrow-mindedness, old fights, and new wars.
But the ticket of thorns through which he will have to pass does not frighten the aging Pontiff--who,
to carry his witness of Christ everywhere, is determined once again to ‘put out into the deep,’ just
as he has encouraged the entire Church to do, in his recent letter Novo Millennio Inuente."
The first stop on the Pope’s itinerary is Athens, where he will confront hostility, public
demonstrations, and even death threats. Then, after a day in a country where the divisions within
Christianity are bitter and deep, he will travel to Damascus, to be greeted by a Christian community
that could serve as a model of ecumenical amity—in a country that is predominantly Muslim. And
on his return trip to Rome he will stop for just over one day in Malta: an island nation with a rich
The Pope’s visit to Greece may be marred by open conflicts between the country’s small Catholic
minority and the Greek Orthodox majority. There are only about 50,000 native Catholics in Greece
(although emigrants from Italy, the Philippines, and elsewhere bring the total Catholic population up
to around 200,000). The Catholic Church enjoys no juridical status in Greece, and the Pope is
coming to a land where many religious leaders have made it clear that he will not be welcome.
Catholics often feel oppressed in a land where 97 percent of the population (that is, about 10 million
people) belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church: perhaps the single Eastern Church that has been
consistently most hostile toward the Holy See in the centuries since the Great Schism. While the
Catholic Church recognizes the Orthodox as "sister churches," in this case the recognition is not
mutual. The Greek Orthodox Church looks upon Rome as an enemy, regards the Pope as a heretic,
and does not recognize the validity of Catholic sacraments.
In June 1999, when he wrote of his desire to make a Jubilee pilgrimage to "the sites connected to
the history of salvation," the Holy Father included the Areopagus: the historic site outside Athens
where St. Paul delivered the address that is described in the Acts of the Apostles. But Greek
Orthodox leaders quickly made it clear that the Roman Pontiff would not receive a formal invitation
for a visit. The Orthodox monks of the famous abbey at Mount Athos stirred up a campaign of
propaganda against the Pontiff. The Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church announced that the
Pope could come only if he apologized for the historical "errors" of the Roman Church, and in effect
accepted the doctrinal authority of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy. For many months, the papal visit
appeared to be an impossibility.
Then a breakthrough occurred: On a January visit to Rome, Greek President Constantinos
Stephanopoulos issued a formal invitation for the Pontiff to visit. Armed with that bid from the
government, John Paul then wrote to Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, asking the
Greek Orthodox hierarchy to extend an invitation as well. Caught in a political bind, the Holy Synod
did respond with an invitation, but the gesture was clearly made without enthusiasm.
Archbishop Christodoulos has indicated that he will not greet the Pope when his plane arrives in
Greece, nor will he participate in any formal ecumenical liturgy. And Christodoulos is generally
regarded as perhaps the most friendly of all Orthodox prelates in his attitude toward the Pope!
Other Orthodox leaders have denounced the Roman Pontiff as a heretic, even referring to him as
the Antichrist. The monks of Mount Athos have renewed their anti-Catholic propaganda campaign.
Several groups have promised public demonstrations against the papal visit. Posters have appeared
on the streets of Athens portraying John Paul as "the Beast of the Apocalypse."
Because of the public hostility, the Pope’s stay in Greece will be relatively quiet. Vatican organizers
had hoped to line up a large stadium for an outdoor Mass in Athens; instead they have settled for a
20,000-seat facility, where tight security measures will be in place. When John Paul travels to the
Areopagus, there will be no major public liturgy; only 100 people will participate in a ceremony
centered around the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
The Vatican has been careful to avoid any gesture that could rouse further opposition to the Pope’s
visit. When Orthodox leaders protested the appearance of Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud on the
list of Vatican officials who would accompany the Pope, the Vatican announced that the Syrian
prelate would not make the trip to Athens, but meet the Pontiff in Damascus. (The cardinal was a
particular focus of hostility because he is a Patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church—a body which
was once aligned with the Orthodox churches, but has been restored to full communion with the
Holy See, in a move the Greek Orthodox regard as surrender to heresy.) In an interview broadcast
on Greek television, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls took great pains to emphasize that
the focus for the Pope’s trip will be on the essential unity among Christians—implicitly assuring the
Orthodox of Greece that the Holy Father would not excite any new doctrinal controversies.
Still, the Holy Father—who has shown himself capable of meeting tough diplomatic challenges again
and again-- may be able to make some ecumenical inroads in Greece. Although he will not preside
at a liturgy with the Pope, Archbishop Christodoulos will be involved in the ceremony at the
Areopagus, along with the Catholic Archbishop Nikolaos Foscolos of Athens. The Orthodox
prelate will also pay a courtesy call on the Pope at the residence of the apostolic nuncio in Athens,
and play host for a return visit by Pope John Paul the next day.
Father Yannis Spiteris, OFM Cap, a Greek theologian who teaches in Rome, told the Fides news
service that he is confident the Pope will be able to overcome the hostility he meets in Greece. "At
the moment there is a lot of noise," Father Spiteris conceded. "But as soon as the people see that
the Pope comes with humility, on a mission of love, and Greek Orthodox believers see a priest who
suffers--a bishop to be admired, a pilgrim, not a conqueror--then the argument will stop and the
hatred will dissolve."
The director of Fides offers a similar prediction. "Pope Paul VI kissed the slipper of Athenagoras I,"
Father Cervellera recalls. "John Paul II has accepted this humiliating path to bear witness to what
unites Christians." He adds: "The humiliation accepted with love has something of the majesty of
Christ scourged at the pillar: shunned by all, he unites all in an even stronger bond."
From an ecumenical standpoint, the Pope’s next stop—in Syria—will bring a dramatic and
welcome change. The Orthodox and Catholic patriarchs of Syria enjoy extraordinarily close and
warm relations. (Indeed, the Catholic patriarchs often seem friendlier toward their Orthodox
counterparts than toward the Holy See.) The Orthodox Patriarch Ignace IV Hakim of Antioch,
head of the largest Christian community in Syria, has distanced himself from the Greek Orthodox
critics of the Pope, saying "we have our own Orthodox personality, and our circumstances are
different." When he joins with the Pope in an ecumenical liturgical service at the Dormition basilica in
Damascus, the Patriarch says, "We will recite the Creed together, and then I will pronounce a very
strong and emphatic discourse of welcome." The history of Christianity runs deep in Syrian culture,
and the variety of Christian churches there is extraordinary. The Greek Orthodox followers of
Patriarch Ignace Hakim form the largest single Christian community, but there are also large
representations of the Melkite Catholic Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Syrian Orthodox,
Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Maronite, Chaldean, and Roman Catholic as well as various
small Protestant churches. Still, all these Christian groups form a small minority, dwarfed in size by
the Islamic majority.
Pope John Paul will reach out to the Muslims while he is in Damascus, making an unprecedented
visit to the Grand Mosque of the Omayyads: a former Christian basilica that houses relics of St.
John the Baptist. Here too the Pope will be careful to avoid rousing anti- Catholic feelings; he will
make a quick visit to the tomb containing the relics, then join with the Grand Mufti in a public
appearance on the streets outside the mosque.
Another diplomatic test for the Pope during the Syrian stage of his trip will involve the tense relations
among the nations of the Middle East. The Pope will travel to the Golan Heights to offer a prayer
for peace in the region, choosing his words carefully to express solidarity for the suffering people of
the region without further inflaming Arabic hostility toward Israel. And on this stop, too, the Vatican
has made the decision to leave an important Catholic prelate off the list of those accompanying the
Pope. Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the Maronite Catholic community in Syria, will be
absent, in deference to the political uproar the Maronite leader created when he harshly criticized
Syria for effectively colonizing his native Lebanon.
The final stop on the Pope’s trip will be an overnight stay in Malta, the Mediterranean island country
that has been a Catholic stronghold for centuries. The Church remains strong there; Sunday Mass
attendance rates are over 65 percent. And the Pope will arrive just as the bishops of Malta finish
preparations for a synod that will begin on Pentecost Sunday. But oddly enough, no one from Malta
has ever been beatified. That will change on May 9, when he Pope presides at the beatification of
three Maltese Catholic heroes: Maria Adeodata Pisani, a 19th-century Benedictine abbess; Ignatius
Falzon, a19th-century catechist; and Father Giorgio Preca, founder of the Society of Christian
Doctrine, who was born in 1880 and died in 1962.