Pope Francis’ visit to Greece, at the invitation of President Katerina Sakellaropoulou on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of Independence, is a significant contribution to the examination of the Greeks’ identity and our place in the world.
For centuries, the Western Church was the rival, Christian sibling and important player in the fate of the Eastern Empire and Church.
The fact that Francis is only the second pope to visit Athens, after John Paul II in 2001, shows the complexity of relations and the depth of the schism that opened between the two churches in 1054.
The dialogue initiated by Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI in 1964 still stokes hostility in sections of the Greek clergy, monasteries and society. This hostility was inherited by Patriarch Vartholomaios, who has contributed toward strengthening relations between the two churches during the 30 years that he has been on the Ecumenical Throne.
In a statement he made before departing Italy for Cyprus and Greece Thursday, Francis expressed the need for stronger ties and his awareness of reality. “This will be a beautiful journey but we will also touch on some wounds,” he said. He did not elaborate. However, his sensitivity to the plight of refugees and migrants makes it most likely that he will criticize the treatment of people requesting asylum in Europe. He may also mention heightened tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Arriving on Cyprus, he spoke of the “terrible trauma” the island “has suffered these past decades.”
The pope’s visit, his meetings with political and church leaders, with the members of local and immigrant Catholic communities, will help reinforce Greece diplomatically.
On his recent visit to Greece, Vartholomaios chose to speak at length of Athenagoras’s legacy, stressing the need for dialogue and unity. Athenagoras, he said, “made great changes, he opened new horizons in the life and history of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, he negotiated ties with the Catholics and Protestants, with all people of good will all over the world, and he left us with a heavy but precious legacy.”
It is this “good will” with which the future is built. Common to all humanity, this value overcomes theological obsessions and heals historic wounds.