May 15, 2022 will be an important day in papal history, statistically speaking. If Pope Francis boards a plane after that date, he will become the oldest pope to have traveled away from Rome. Announcements made by Francis on several recent occasions suggest that this will happen, despite fears and concerns about the Pope’s health, with the Pontiff having undergone a delicate colon operation in July.
Francis hopes to visit Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lebanon. If the importance of a papal trip depended upon the distance covered, there would be little to say about the upcoming trip, Dec. 2-6, to Cyprus and Greece. But even such a short trip contains many reasons for interest, and also difficulties.
Exaudi will be bringing you the latest coverage and many exclusives as they are on this papal flight to Cyprus and Greece. And although the program of what the Pope will do and where he will go is already set out in detail, as always during papal trips, we should expect the unexpected. The Cypriot and Greek Catholic communities, even if small, are ready to give a warm welcome to the Pope, and he is going to shepherd them, regardless of their size.
Francis in Cyprus, a Divided Country
Francis will take off from Rome for Larnaca, the international airport of Cyprus, at 11 a.m. on Thursday, December 2, to land at 3 p.m. local time, given the time zone difference of one hour ahead. Then he will leave for Athens on the morning of Saturday, December 4, at 9.30 a.m.
Cyprus is a country with an ancient Orthodox tradition, but there is also a substantial Islamic minority. The Catholic community in Cyprus is so small that there is no bishop but rather a vicar of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Polish Franciscan Fr Jerzy Kray, OFM, who leads the local church for the island nation. In addition to the Latin Rite Catholic faithful, there is a small Maronite Catholic community led by an archbishop, His Excellency Selim Jean Sfeir.
Pope Francis will meet with the priests, religious, catechists and ecclesial associations and movements of Cyprus in the Maronite church of Our Lady of Grace. In the Latin parish of the Holy Cross, he will celebrate an ecumenical prayer with the immigrant communities of Cyprus.
The Leader of Cyprus’ Catholics: ‘Pope Comes to Teach & Learn’
Of the approximately 30,000 Catholics living in Cyprus, few are native Cypriots. Among the Maronites, there are many Lebanese who have recently arrived in Cyprus, due to the nation’s economic crisis. It is very likely that from Nicosia, Francis will give an encouragement to Lebanon, which is less than a half hour flight from Cyprus. The Latin Catholic community, on the other hand, about 25,000 strong, is made up almost entirely of Filipino, Indian, Sri Lankan, Polish and Romanian immigrants. There are also a few hundred African Catholics and a community of Greek Catholic rite faithful from Ukraine. But the main pastoral challenge of the Cypriot Catholic Church, Father Kraj told Exaudi in an exclusive interview, is not only about cultivating the unity of all national communities, but also about increasing tolerance. In the northern part of Cyprus, which is the territory of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey), not a single Catholic priest lives, despite the fact that several hundred young Catholics, mainly from Africa, study in the local universities.
Ambassador: ‘Cyprus Needs Pope Francis’ Words of Peace & Hope’
The division of the island into two parts dates back to 1974, when Turkey invaded and occupied a third of the country’s surface, the northern part. Cyprus’ capital Nicosia is still today cut in two by a wall that marks the border between Cyprus and Northern Cyprus. In this part of Cyprus occupied by Turkey, a serious problem is the deterioration of the great Christian cultural heritage made up of churches, sacred buildings and works of art that bear witness to the country’s Christian history.
Pope Francis will not cross the border into northern Cyprus. However, the conversation he will have with the President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, and then the meeting with the authorities, civil society and ambassadors, will hardly be able to avoid such burning issues; delicate issues, because they also concern relations with Turkey.
At the Mass at Nicosia Stadium on Friday, Dec. 3, at 10 a.m., the presence of a representative of the Orthodox Church of Cyprus has been announced. But the occasion to take stock of ecumenical relations between Catholics and Orthodox will be the Pope’s visit to Archbishop Crysostomos II, followed by a meeting with the Cypriot Orthodox Holy Synod.
Among the 127 countries in the world visited by Pope St. John II, curiously enough there is no Cyprus. The first pope to land on the island was Benedict XVI in 2021. That trip proved the good ecumenical relations that still exist between Rome and the Cypriot Orthodox Church.
Ecumenism in Greece, an Uphill Battle
Pope John Paul II visited Greece in 2001, after the Great Jubilee of 2000. In the history of JPII’s pontificate, that trip is remembered as one of the most difficult of the 104 made by the Polish Pope outside Italy. The reception of the Pontiff was not very cordial. And many remember the noisy protests against the Pope’s arrival on Greek soil.
Greece is also a country with an overwhelming Orthodox majority, with a small Catholic community composed mainly of foreign immigrants. The climate of ecumenical relations is no longer what it was 20 years ago, but there are still difficulties, as His Excellency Theodoros Kostidis, the Jesuit appointed Archbishop of Athens by Pope Francis himself just last July, explained to Exaudi.
During his more than eight year pontificate, Francis has never shied away from sensitive ecumenical dialogue. Of the 34 trips made abroad by the Argentine pope to date, many have had as their main purpose promoting ecumenical dialogue with brothers from other churches and Christian communities.
The list begins with a visit to Sweden in 2016, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation. In 2018, Francis went to Switzerland, to Geneva, for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Ecumenical Council of Churches. In addition, Francis visited several countries with an Orthodox majority: Georgia, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Romania. And we should not forget the 2016 meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba, and before that the visit to Turkey, in Istanbul, in 2014, where Francis visited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Catholic Church maintains a ‘multilateral’ theological dialogue with the Orthodox churches through the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue, in which 14 different Orthodox churches are represented, including Greece and Cyprus. But considering not only the theological dialogue on doctrines professed and taught by Catholics and Orthodox, the climate of relations between Rome and the individual Orthodox churches varies greatly from church to church.
In Athens, no prayer or celebration together with the Orthodox has been prepared for Pope Francis. Francis will land in Greece at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 4, coming from Cyprus. His first engagements will be the usual meetings with the President of the Republic, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, the Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and then with the authorities, civil society and ambassadors.
In the afternoon, Francis will visit the Archbishop of Athens and All of Greece, Ieronymos II. The face-to-face meeting between the Pope and archbishop will be followed by an official meeting with their respective retinues, in the Throne Room of the Orthodox archbishopric of Athens.
Not even John Paul II, 20 years ago, was allowed to pray together with the Orthodox. Upon arrival in Athens, on the airport runway, given being 80 and more and more frail, the Polish Pope normally would have been handed a vessel with soil he would kiss showing respect for the host nation. However, no one did. Pope John Paul II, however, did not refrain during that visit from uttering a historic “mea culpa” that helped soften much of the hostility of the Greek Orthodox: he spoke of “deep regret” for the historical events of 1204, when the crusaders attacked Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire, turning against their brothers in faith.
That wound is still open on the Greek soul. The Greek Orthodox Church, it is fair to say, one of those lagging furthest behind on the road to ecumenism.
The Catholic Archbishop of Athens, Monsignor Kontidis, told Exaudi that “at the level of personal relations we can really be friends, we discuss freely, we recognize each other’s riches. But if we talk about ecumenism on a formal, official level, nothing moves and the differences seem insurmountable obstacles. No Orthodox bishop would risk internal rifts in order to create closer ties with Catholics’.
Won’t Be Easy…
It will not be easy for Pope Francis to make many Greek Orthodox reconsider their ideas about the Pope and Catholics. For statistics, Greece will be the first country in the world to be visited twice by Francis, although the first time he did not touch the capital Athens. Many remember the April 16, 2016 visit to Lesbos, the Greek island in the Aegean Sea located a few kilometers from the coast of Turkey.
That trip was announced and organized within a few days. Together with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II, Francis visited the refugee camp of Moria, destroyed a year ago by a gigantic fire. The island of Lesbos is located along the so-called ‘Balkan route’ that leads from the Middle East to the countries of Central and Northern Europe. For years, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers have been living on Lesbos in dramatic conditions, mainly fleeing Syria and Afghanistan, but rejected by Europe.
At a time when other European borders are also closing to push back huge masses of desperate refugees, none of the words that Francis will speak on Lesbos, during his two-hour stay on that island, on the morning of Sunday December 5, will go unnoticed.
Finally, the program includes a Mass on Sunday afternoon in the Megaron Concert Hall of Athens, a visit of Ieronymos II to the Pope in the apostolic nunciature, then on Monday morning, a meeting with the young people of the Saint Dionysius School of the Ursuline nuns and finally departing for Rome.
Most recently, in September, the Holy Father traveled to Hungary – for the International Eucharistic Congress – and Slovakia. And before that trip, prior to his colon surgery, Francis made a widely anticipated, risky, and highly controversial trip to war-torn Iraq in March, not letting Covid or security concerns get in the way of him shepherding his people.
‘I’m Still Alive..’
One saw during the trip to Hungary and Slovakia that the Pope is still keeping an intense schedule despite having had the summer surgery. Even during that trip, when a fellow Jesuit asked the Pope about his health, the Pope joked that he was still alive and made light of any accusations that his health was deteriorating.
Many notice that he was just as active as always. On his return flight from Iraq, Francis admitted that it was more arduous than other times and that he may need to start going at a slower pace.
Regardless his schedules for these apostolic trips are never less full. And clearly Pope Francis must want it that way.
Follow Exaudi for the latest, and on social networks, as its editorial director travels with Pope Francis to Cyprus and Greece.