At the arrival of Pope Francis at the Athens Archdiocese, and as he was walking inside the headquarters of the Church of Greece, an elderly priest shouted “Pope, you are a heretic,” before he was removed by police.
This, however, was the only negative note in the Pope’s meeting with the Archbishop of Athens and all Greece Ieronymos. After their private meeting, Francis and Ieronymos went to the room of the Archdiocese’s throne, where the Archbishop said that “this day of your visit is especially important for us”, while the Pope began his speech by greeting Hieronymos with the words of the Apostle Paul – “grace and peace from God” – whose steps he follows in his apostolic journey to Cyprus and Greece.
During his speech, Archbishop Ieronymos referred to the pandemic, the environment and immigration, applauding the Pope’s sensitivity to the issue, but also saying that the flows should stop and referring to the weaponization of refugees by countries such as Turkey.
Ieronymos also mentioned the 200th anniversary of the Greek War of Independence, stating that popes from that era had kept their distance from the Greek struggle for freedom. “I do not want to embarrass you,” said Ieronymos, “but I believe that among people who want to be called brothers and sisters in Christ, the best language is honesty.”
After his speech, Archbishop Ieronymos presented Francis with a silver icon of the Apostle Paul.
“History has its weight and today here I feel the need to renew the apology from God and from the brethren for the mistakes made by so many Catholics,” said Pope Francis in his own speech. The Pope called the Archbishop “brother” and referred to both their common apostolic roots and the previous meeting of the two on the island of Lesvos in 2016. “Now we meet again to share the joy of brotherhood and look at the Mediterranean that surrounds us not only as a place that worries us and separates us, but also as a sea that unites,” said the Pope.
Leaving the Archdiocese, the Pope boarded a blue Fiat 500 and went to Athens’ main Catholic church, the Catholic Cathedral Basilica of St Dionysius the Areopagite, where Catholic bishops, nuns and monks, and many faithful laypeople were waiting for him. Many children from different parishes, who were gathered in the courtyard of the church, cheered, chanted his name and waved flags with the special logo of his visit, waiting for his arrival.
As the Pope walked into the church, the catholic chants were drowned by the deafening round of applause with which the congregation greeted him.
“I am glad to meet you in a place that is a gift, a heritage of humanity, on which the foundations of the West were built,” said the Pope, after thanking them for the warm welcome, and then referring again to the Apostle Paul, urging the Catholics living in Greece, a minority numbering about 250,000 among a population of nearly 10.7 million not to be discouraged by the small size of their community.
“Study Paul’s story in Athens,” he said. “Well, my dear ones,” he continued, “I would like to tell you: Bless the smallness and accept it.”
The Pope ended the first day of his visit with a private meeting with members of the Brotherhood of Jesus in the Apostolic Nunciature. Tomorrow he will visit Lesvos for the second time; in the afternoon, he will conduct the Divine Liturgy at Athens Concert Hall.