Pope John Paul II said he was encouraged and moved by the warm welcome of Orthodox and Muslim leaders and youths during his early May pilgrimage to Greece, Syria and Malta.
Speaking May 16 at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square, he said reconciliation with Orthodox Christians and dialogue with Muslims were among Catholic Church priorities for the new millennium.
During his May 4-9 visit to the three countries, the Pope retraced the footsteps of St. Paul, completing a cycle of long-desired biblical pilgrimages to mark the new millennium of Christianity.
My pilgrimage in St. Paul's footsteps, which took me to Greece, Syria and Malta, ended a week ago. Today, I am happy to reflect with you on this event, which constitutes the last part of my Jubilee journey to the principal places of salvation history. I am grateful to all those who followed me in prayer on this unforgettable “return to the sources” to draw on the freshness of the initial Christian experience.
I renew my sentiments of cordial gratitude to Mr. Kostis Stephanopoulos, president of the Hellenic Republic, for inviting me to visit Greece. I thank Mr. Bashar Assad, president of the Syrian Arab Republic, and Mr. Guido De Marco, president of the Republic of Malta, who welcomed me so courteously in Damascus and Valletta.
In all these places, I wanted to give evidence to the Orthodox Churches of the affection and esteem of the Catholic Church, with the hope that the memory of past faults against communion will be fully purified, and make way for reconciliation and fraternity. I had the opportunity, moreover, to reaf-firm the sincere openness with which the Church turns to the believers of Islam, to whom we are united in adoration of the one God.
I consider it a particular grace to have been able to meet the Catholic bishops of Greece, Syria and Malta, especially in their mission fields — and together with them, the priests, the men and the women religious, and the numerous lay faithful. Following in St. Paul's footsteps, Peter's successor was able to comfort and encourage those communities, exhorting them to fidelity and, at the same time, to openness and fraternal charity.
Preaching in the Areopagus
The words of Paul's famed address, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, echoed in the Areopagus of Athens. They were read in Greek and English, and this very fact was significant in itself. The Greek language was, in fact, the one most spoken in the Mediterranean region at the beginning of the first millennium, as English is today at the global level. The “Good News” of Christ, revealer of God and savior of the world — yesterday, today and forever — is intended for all men and women on earth, according to his explicit command.
At the beginning of this third millennium, the Areopagus of Athens became, in a certain sense, “the Areopagus of the world,” from which the Christian message of salvation was proposed again to all who are searching for God and are “God-fearing” in accepting his inexhaustible mystery of truth and love. In particular, through the reading of the “Joint Declaration,” which at the end of a fraternal meeting I signed with His Beatitude Christodoulos, archbishop of Athens and All Greece, an appeal was directed to all the peoples of the European Continent not to forget their Christian roots.
Paul's address in the Areopagus constitutes a model of inculturation and, as such, it retains its timeliness intact. Because of this, I proposed it again at the eucharistic celebration with the Catholic community in Greece, recalling the wonderful example of the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius, natives of Salonika. FaithfulIy and creatively taking their inspiration from that model, they did not hesitate to spread the Gospel among the Slavic peoples.
Paul's Vocation And Ours
After Greece, I went to Syria where, on the Damascus road, the risen Christ appeared to Saul of Tarsus, transforming him from a fierce persecutor into a tireless apostle of the Gospel. It was a journey to the origins, as [was my pilgrimage to the places of] Abraham, a return to the call, the vocation. That is what I was thinking when I visited St. Paul's Memorial. God's interaction with men always begins with a call — a call that invites one to leave behind oneself and one's own security to set out towards a new land, trusting the One who calls. That's how it was for Abraham, Moses, Mary, Peter and the other Apostles — and also for Paul.
Today, Syria is a country inhabited primarily by Muslims, who believe in one God and seek to subject themselves to him following the example of Abraham, to whose faith they gladly link their own (see Nostra Aetate, No. 3). At the beginning of the third millennium, the interreligious dialogue with Islam is becoming ever more important and necessary. In this respect, the warm welcome reserved for me by the civil authorities and the Grand Mufti was truly encouraging. [The latter] accompanied me on the historic visit to the Great Mosque of the Omayyad, where the Memorial to St. John the Baptist is found — which is very much venerated by Muslims also.
In Damascus, my pilgrimage assumed, above all, a strong ecumenical character, thanks particularly to the visits I had the joy of making to the cathedral of His Beatitude Ignatius IV, the Greek-Orthodox patriarch, and to that of His Holiness Mor Ignatius Zakka I, the Syrian-Orthodox patriarch. Then, in the historic Greek-Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, we held a solemn prayer meeting. Thus, with heartfelt emotion, I saw one of the principal objectives of the Jubilee pilgrimage realized, namely, to “gather together in the places of our common origin, to bear witness to Christ our unity (cf., Ut Unum Sint, No. 23) and to confirm our mutual commitment to the restoration of full communion” (Letter on the Pilgrimage to Places Linked to the History of Salvation, No. 11).
A Cry for Peace
In Syria, motivated, unfortunately, by the dramatic present situation, which is becoming ever more troubling, I could not but direct a special plea to God for peace in the Middle East. I went up to the Golan Heights, to the church of Quneitra, half-destroyed by the war, and there raised my plea. In a certain sense, my spirit remained there, and my prayer continues and will not end until vendetta gives way to reconciliation and the recognition of mutual rights.
This hope is based on faith. It is the hope I entrusted to the youth of Syria, whom I had the joy of meeting on the evening before leaving Damascus. I carry in my heart the warmth of their greeting and I pray to the God of peace that Christian, Muslim and Jewish youth will be able to grow together as children of the one God.
Ship of Paul, Ship of the Church
The last stage of my pilgrimage in Paul's footsteps was the island of Malta, where the Apostle spent three months, after the sinking of the ship that was taking him as a prisoner to Rome (see Acts 27:39-28:10). For the second time, I too experienced the warm welcome of the Maltese, and had the joy of beatifying two sons of their people — Don Giorgio Preca, founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine, and Ignatius Falzon, a lay catechist — together with Sister Maria Adeodata Pisani, a Benedictine religious.
Once again I wanted to point out the way of holiness as the high road for believers of the third millennium. In the vast ocean of history, the Church does not fear the challenges and snares she encounters in the course of her voyage — as long as she holds the rudder firm on the way of holiness, toward which she has been pointed by the Great Jubilee of 2000 (see Novo Millennio Ineunte, No. 30).
May this be so for all, thanks also to the intercession of Mary, to whom we have constant recourse during this month of May, dedicated to her. May the Virgin help every Christian, every family and every community to continue with renewed energy in their commitment of daily fidelity to the Gospel.