VATICAN CITY—In the days leading up to Pope John Paul II's “Jubilee pilgrimage” to Greece—it continued the visits he made to Egypt and the Holy Land last year—it was common to hear Vatican commentators describe the visit as the “most difficult,” and perhaps even “most dangerous” of his pontificate.
It was an extraordinary comment, given that Greece is a Christian country with a democratic government. Could it be possible that the hostility of the Greek Orthodox would be worse than the communist boors of Sandinista Nicaragua, who shouted down the pope in Managua in 1983, or the henchmen of Augusto Pinochet in 1987, who provoked a riot during a papal Mass in Chile?
Despite ominous signs beforehand — in which the Orthodox bishops of Greece made it abundantly clear that they would prefer the Pope not to come and the more militant clergy staged anti-papal protests—the May 4-5 visit was a step forward. The first papal visit to Greece in over 1000 years was not the triumph of last year's visit to the Holy Land, but it yielded discernible progress. And the Holy Father's historic request for forgiveness for Catholic sins against the Orthodox may mark a turning point in Catholic-Orthodox relations.
“The impossible mission will finish with a success,” one Italian newspaper put its headline. The newspaper's commentator suggested that the meeting between the Pope and the Orthodox Patriarch of Greece Christódoulos at the Areopagus in Athens could be an encounter as historic as the “Men of Athens” speech of St. Paul that made the Areopagus famous (Acts 17:22-34).
That may be a stretch, but there was at least a small breakthrough when the Pope and Patriarch Christódoulos prayed the “Our Father” together in Greek at the apostolic nunciature in Athens. Previously, the Greek Orthodox had refused any common prayer with the Pope—which is why they signed a joint declaration at the Areopagus instead of having a liturgical service—but Christódoulos responded favorably to the Holy Father's spontaneous request.
“More than any other pilgrimage which I have made, the one I am about to undertake [to the places linked with the history of salvation] during the Jubilee event will be marked by the desire expressed in Christ's prayer to the Father that his disciples ‘may all be one’,” wrote the Holy Father in his June 1999 letter that declared his desire to visit the Holy Land, and then to follow in St. Paul's footsteps to Athens and Damascus.
That letter was met in the fall of 1999 with a flat rejection from the Orthodox Synod of Greece, saying that the Pope was not welcome. It was not until January 2001 that the Greek pilgrimage became possible, when Greek President Constantinos Stephanopoulos came to Rome and invited the Pope. Upon his return to Greece, Stephanopoulos forced the Orthodox Synod to withdraw its objections and accept the visit.
That process underscored the difficulties that awaited john Paul II in Athens. Today, the Roman Pontiff enjoys unmatched prestige, and is invited by heads of state all over the world. The patriarchs of Orthodoxy, by contrast, feel besieged by a world that relegates them to the periphery; indeed, the Greek Orthodox keenly felt the humiliation of being forced by their own government to accept a visit that they did not want.
A continuing obstacle on the path to greater Catholic-Orthodox unity is that, despite Roman efforts to emphasize the fraternal nature of these meetings between “sister churches,” the meetings are not in practice encounters between equals. For Patriarch Christó doulos, his only day on the world stage came when the Pope visited, a fact that aggravates Orthodox concerns that the Catholic Church wants merely to swallow up the Orthodox Churches in the name of unity.
But papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls insisted that the difficulties reinforced the necessity of the Greek pilgrimage. For most Catholics, hearing the Holy Father called a “two-horned monster” and a “heretic” came as a shock. However, this is so primarily because most Catholics hear almost nothing about, or from, Orthodoxy.
Consequently, the trip was like two estranged branches of a family meeting after several generations of isolation. The news is not that the various relatives think ill of each other—which, after all, is the reason for the estrangement – but that they are meeting. A meeting marked by some rancor is, therefore, a more promising sign of reconciliation than snubbed invitations that generated only stony silence.
“The Pope is very happy,” said Navarro-Valls. “A way has been opened. Even two months ago this visit was unthinkable, and today it ends with a joint declaration.”
Visible Sign of Unity
The joint declaration signed at the Areopagus made a nod toward Christian unity and a joint appeal for Europe to preserve its Christian roots, but the importance was not its frankly banal substance. Almost 10 centuries after the schism of 1054, the achievement of Greece was to produce for the first time since then a common act.
With an eye to the future, John Paul II renewed his now established practice of offering a mea culpa — the most historic moment during his short visit. In asking forgiveness from God for sins against the Orthodox, the Holy Father hoped to heal the wounds of the past.
“Clearly, there is need for a liberating process of purification of memory,” said the Holy Father. “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's address came in response to that of Patriarch Christódoulos, who, at the behest of the Orthodox Synod, presented a list of Orthodoxy's historic grievances against the Church of Rome.
“Traumatic experiences remain as open wounds in the vigorous body of the Greek people,” the patriarch said. “To date, not even one single petition for forgiveness has been heard.”
John Paul also referred to the Fourth Crusade of 1204, the single event that most soured the Catholic-Orthodox relationship. The Crusade was supposed to go to Jerusalem to re-open access to the Holy Places, but instead ended in Constantinople. Catholics from the West pillaged the city, Orthodoxy's capital. Attempts were also made to impose the Latin rites and ecclesiastical structures on the Orthodox.
“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 continued. “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. 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.”
It is not yet clear what happens after such a mea culpa. Does it mean that the Fourth Crusade is now a closed issue? Does it mean that the Orthodox are expected to make a similar request for forgiveness from God for acts of anti-Catholic aggression—as happened much more recently in Central and Eastern European countries under communism?
Those matters remain for the future—but not the distant future. Next month, the Holy Father will be in another predominantly Orthodox country, the Ukraine, where the challenges will be the same as in Greece, only more complicated.------- EXCERPT: John Paul II's trip makes history