“I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

When St. Paul wrote those words to the church at Corinth, Greece, around the year 57, he could hardly have known how dramatically they would be made manifest in that same country 19 and a half centuries later—in the person of a successor apostle following his footsteps.

“For the occasions past and present, when the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by actions and omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us the forgiveness we beg.”

What did much of the world see in Pope John Paul II as he gave his May 4 address to Greece's Orthodox leader, Archbishop Christodoulos? A frail, aged religious leader, pleading for pardon in a land where 95% of the inhabitants are non-Catholic, and most are indifferent, if not openly hostile, to his presence. More than a few expressed their cynicism.

But others saw something much different: a modern modeling of the strength-in-weakness paradox St. Paul tried so hard to inspire in all who would be baptized and call themselves Christian.

In fact, with a few exceptions, the large-scale opposition that had preceded the Pope's arrival seemed to evaporate just hours before he touched down on Greek soil.

Then Archbishop Christodoulos, who had only grudgingly accepted John Paul's visit after the Greek government invited him, burst into applause at the Holy Father's remarks. The two men later embraced.

And, together, standing at the Aeropagus, the site at which St. Paul preached the Gospel to the Athenians, the two released a historic joint statement. While it isn't likely to create a sudden, complete reversal of the rupture between the Eastern and Western churches, separate entities since the Great Schism of 1054, it was clearly a significant step in the right direction.

“We wish that our God and Father and our Lord Jesus direct our way,” the declaration read, “so that we may increase and abound in love toward one another and toward all men, and establish the hearts of all … in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

The Second Letter to the Corinthians, in which St. Paul most clearly explicates his strength-in-weakness dialectic, is considered the most personal of all his writings. It reveals not only his theology, but also his character. Crises had arisen in the Corinthian church, and their resistance to resolution caused him to look deeply into his own heart to consider what he might do to bring relational healing without compromising doctrinal purity.

Pope John Paul II's efforts to begin the third Christian millennium with prayers of, and pleas for, contrition for wrongs committed by Catholics through the ages reflect this same deep soul-searching as a necessary ingredient of evangelization and unity.

In this, St. Paul and the Holy Father mirror the Lord himself in a way that challenges us all to “boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

After all, it was Christ who said to Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

We saw Christian weakness at work in Greece last week, and in a new and powerful way.

------- EXCERPT: Editorial