NEWS

Pope Francis coming back to Greece

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When Pope John Paul II came to Greece in May 2001 it was the first time a Roman Catholic leader had visited the country since the Great Schism of 1054 divided Christianity into Eastern and Western branches.

That visit was followed in April 2016 by Pope Francis, who traveled to the Moria migrant camp on the island of Lesvos and met with Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios and Athens Archbishop Ieronymos.

Pope Francis, the “Pope of the Poor,” will be back for another historic visit to Greece this week, becoming the second pope to visit Athens in this millennium and the second to ever visit Cyprus.

Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was elected pope in March 2013 to succeed Pope Benedict XVI following his resignation a month earlier. He was the first Jesuit to command the Catholic Church’s highest office, the first pope from the Americas and the first to take the name Francis – a name he chose in honor of St Francis of Assisi and signifying his intention to fight poverty and social inequalities. After visiting the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2016, Francis took three families of Syrian refugees back to the Vatican. This time, he will not just visit Lesvos.

The pontiff’s visit to Greece, which follows an invitation by Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou last year ahead of the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution against Ottoman rule, will begin on Saturday. After his visit to the Presidential Mansion, the pope will then meet with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and other Greek officials and diplomats.

Francis will subsequently meet with Ieronymos at the Archdiocese of Athens and with various representatives of the Church of Greece at the Catholic Cathedral of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite. In the evening, he will meet with members of the Jesuit community at the Vatican Embassy in the northern suburb of Palaio Psychiko.

On Sunday, Francis will travel to Lesvos and speak with refugees on the island, returning to the capital in the afternoon to conduct a liturgy at the Athens Concert Hall and meet again with Ieronymos.

He will meet with parliamentary spokesman Konstantinos Tasoulas on Monday morning, before speaking to pupils at the Ecole Franco-Hellenique des Ursulines and then departing for the airport.

Government sources speaking to Kathimerini stressed the significance of the visit, noting that as head of the Catholic Church, the pontiff “reaches millions of people all over the world and is renowned for his human sensibilities.”

Before coming to Greece, Pope Francis will spend two days in Cyprus, becoming the second pontiff to visit the country since Benedict XVI in 2010. He is scheduled to fly from Rome to Larnaca tomorrow, but all of his meetings will take place in Nicosia. These include talks with church representatives, but also with Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and other government and diplomatic officials.

On Friday, Francis will hold talks with Archbishop Chrysostomos II of Cyprus and the Holy Synod, while also holding prayers with migrants at the Holy Cross Catholic Church.

According to Cyprus’ government spokesman, Marios Pelekanos, Anastasiades plans to brief Pope Francis on developments concerning Cypriot reunification talks, while the agenda of their discussion also includes the pandemic, migration and the pontiff’s intention to relocate a certain number of refugees to the Vatican, as well as human rights and the protection of all the faithful, regardless of their religion.

There are several thousand Catholics in Greece and Cyprus. In Greece, the native population does not exceed 50,000, but all together, the number of Catholic people living in the country is in excess of 250,000, according to Helen Carabott, the communications director of the Catholic Church in Greece.

“Pope Francis’ visit to Greece is regarded as an event of celebration and unity for the entire Catholic community,” Carabott notes. In Greece, she adds, this community is “very diverse, comprising faithful from many different nationalities and linguistic backgrounds,” including migrants who came in the 1980s from countries like Poland, Albania and Ukraine, but also Syrian and Iraqi Catholics who came in 2015, among others.

The majority of Greece’s Catholics live in Athens, though there is a significant presence on the islands of the Cyclades – where there are around 8,000 on Syros and 3,000 on Tinos – and in other parts of the country, like Corfu and Thessaloniki.