Letter from Thessaloniki

And Pope John Paul said to me: «So, you come from Thessaloniki… the Apostle Paul walked the streets of Thessaloniki. I hope some day I will be able to do the same.» No joke. I actually spoke with the pope. As the sole Greek journalist there at the time, I accompanied Pope John Paul II on a special Alitalia flight from Rome to Ankara on his way to one of his first pontifical visits to Turkey. That was in November 1979. Those of us who accompanied him, riding in what would be economy class – with first-class service – on the chartered papal plane, had to be constantly prepared with the right response in case the pope decided to conduct one of his walkabouts through our section. And he did. «I have already been to Greece once,» he said to me and when I asked him if he had been informed of certain rumored threats from Turkish Islamic fundamentalists, he replied, «We are all in the hands of God, aren’t we?» He also mentioned that he hoped to make a spiritual pilgrimage to the biblical sites in Greece. When I transmitted this conversation to the Greek daily I was working for at the time, Apogevmatini, they published it in huge letters on the front page: «THE POPE SPEAKS TO ‘A’» (November 29, 1979). «This pope, he is some fellow,» I remember one of the American journalists commenting during a later trip: «Imagine, just the fact that his constant travels have taken him to more than 100 countries means that he logged the equivalent of three times the distance between the earth and the moon.» Pope John Paul II never made it to Thessaloniki but he fulfilled another of his expressed desires, which seemed even more improbable than going to the moon: In 2001, he visited Athens, the city where St Paul once preached. Not that he was particularly welcomed there. The long ill feeling between the two churches has been festering for centuries. Greek Orthodoxy has constantly rejected the West since the time of the Byzantine Empire. Shortly before the fall of Constantinople in 1453, there was a saying: «Better the Turkish turban than the Papal tiara.» Some two decades ago, leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church ruled out a spiritual pilgrimage by Pope John Paul II to Athens until the Roman Catholic pontiff apologized and did penance for centuries of enmity between the Orthodox and Catholics – as though it was just «their» fault. So, during his trip to Athens, the pope – as the great politician he has always also been – asked God’s forgiveness for Catholics, whom he said had committed sins against Orthodox Christians for 1,000 years. What kind of sins? They are meticulously accounted for in Byzantine chronicles: It was Pope Innocent III who ordered more than 20,000 French knights to attack and conquer the Holy Land, then known as Palestine, in the name of Christ and Christianity. In 1202, the Crusaders changed course and attacked Constantinople, which, until then, had withstood the onslaught of Muslim armies for almost five centuries. The Christian invaders killed, raped, pillaged and plundered. Priceless treasures, relics, bones, heads and arms of saints, Christ’s infamous crown of thorns itself, St Thomas the Doubter’s finger and other comparable treasures were shipped to the West. «We cannot forget what happened in the month of April 1204,» said the late pope last June in reference to the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders. «How can we not share, at a distance of eight centuries, the pain and disgust?» He delivered such an emotional apology to the Orthodox Christians during a visit to the Vatican by Vartholomaios, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Reconciliation with the Orthodox Church (for the pope also apologized to Muslims for the Crusades) had become a focal point of the pope’s 25-year reign, notwithstanding the war in Iraq, the pedophile priests scandals and the rise of worldwide religious terrorism. «The spirit of reconciliation is stronger than hatred,» Patriarch Vartholomaios preached during a liturgy at the Vatican last year. «We receive with gratitude and respect your cordial gesture for the tragic events of the Fourth Crusade.» In the next few days, Patriarch Vartholomaios is to fly to Rome for the funeral rites. Since 1964, when Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagorus embraced and formally nullified the anathemas of 1054 against each other, the patron feasts of saints Peter and Paul (celebrated in Rome on June 29) and St Andrew (celebrated in Istanbul on November 30) have brought Orthodox and Catholic hierarchs together. Also during Vartholomaios’s visit to Rome last year, the pope agreed to the request to return the relics of St Gregory of Nazianzen and of St John Chrysostom from St Paul’s Basilica in the Vatican to the Cathedral of St George in Istanbul. Whereas Orthodox scholars believe the relics were brought to Rome from Constantinople after the disastrous Fourth Crusade in 1204, Catholic scholars insist that they were brought to Rome by Greek monks during the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth century. Anyway, the return of the bones was greatly appreciated. In Greece, there are 45,000 native Catholics; with Poles, Filipinos, Italians and others they must number around 200,000. Over the next few days, the Greek media can help to demystify some of the anti-papal climate rooted in our country for centuries. For there are still some radicals who refuse ecumenism and consider the pope the root of all evil.

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