Exaudi Brought Exclusives Traveling with Pontiff on the Papal Flight
Copyright: Vatican Media
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Visit to Greece and Cyprus is one to be remembered.
Exaudi’s Editorial Director and Senior Vatican Correspondent, Deborah Castellano Lubov, was on the papal flight and brought its readers full coverage of and exclusive interviews from the Pontiff’s 35th Apostolic Journey abroad to these two majority Orthodox nations.
While those who have followed the Pontiff’s international travels would not forget the sometimes indifference, or even at times coldness, he received during his trips to Orthodox countries, one could honestly perceive this time a further thawing of the ice.
When he arrived in Athens, the Pope addressed the Greek president and authorities where he recalled how in Greece, “the world’s horizons expanded.” Reflecting also on democracy, whose concept originated in the country, the Pope lamented how the notion of democracy is deteriorating throughout the world.
“We cannot avoid noting with concern how today, and not only in Europe,” Francis decried, “we are witnessing a retreat from democracy. Democracy requires participation and involvement on the part of all; consequently, it demands hard work and patience…” He warned that democracy, being complex, is often looked over, making it easy to open the path toward populism and authoritarianism.
The Pontiff would similarly encourage the young people at St. Dionysius School, run by the Ursuline Sisters, in Marousi, a suburb north of Athens. Enthusiasm was explosive there for the Pope’s presence. The whole school was ready to welcome him and a memorable group of sweet little girls in Catholic school uniforms were waiting for the Pontiff in their masks. There was also a performance with traditional Greek music and dancing once the Pope entered. After the festivities, the Holy Father would urge the young people and children to always turn to the Lord.
Before giving up or being depressed, Pope Francis encouraged them to bring their lives before God and share their worries with Him. Moreover, he clarified, that it is normal to have doubts and that they shouldn’t be perceived as lack of faith, but rather as vitamins of faith, which can strengthen and deepen it.
Exaudi also saw children ecstatic for the Pope outside the Cathedral ahead of his encounter with religious, consecrated and seminarians, before he would have his traditional, private encounter with the country’s Jesuits. The little ones outside the church were waving flags, chanting songs of welcome, and engaging our small press pool to also put them on Facebook and Twitter.
During that encounter, Pope Francis reminded how St. Paul certainly was not welcomed with open arms in Greece, but how he pushed forward anyway, empowered by his trust in God.
He suggested that the small Catholic community in Greece could relate to the not-so-warm welcome of Paul.
“Perhaps, many times along the way, we too feel weary and even frustrated at being a small community, a Church with few resources operating in a climate that is not always favorable,” he said, adding: “Think about Paul in Athens. He was alone, in the minority, unwelcome, and with little chance of success. But he did not allow himself to be overcome by discouragement. He did not give up on his mission. Nor did he yield to the temptation to complain.”
Like St. Paul, who went forward with confidence and courage, the Pope urged Catholics of Greece to be intrepid too. “Paul had that courage. Where does it come from? From confident trust in God. His was the courage born of trust in God, who loves to accomplish great things through our lowliness.”
Trust in Him and He Will Work Wonders
Pope Francis would celebrate Mass for the Catholics of Greece in an unconventional setting, namely a beautiful concert hall, the Megaron Concert Hall to be exact, where he would remind them to turn to Christ, and that when we trust Him, He works wonders.
“To be converted,” Francis underscored, “means not listening to the things that stifle hope, to those who keep telling us that nothing ever changes in life, the pessimists of all time. It means refusing to believe that we are destined to sink into the mire of mediocrity. It means not surrendering to our inner fears, which surface especially at times of trial in order to discourage us and tell us that we will not make it, that everything has gone wrong and that becoming saints is not for us.”
Because God is always present, Francis said that this is not the case.
“We have to trust Him,” he stressed, “for he is our beyond, our strength. Everything changes when we give first place to the Lord. That is what conversion is! As far as Christ is concerned, we need only open the door and let Him enter in and work His wonders. Just as the desert and the preaching of John were all it took for Christ to come into the world. The Lord asks for nothing more.”
With the Forgotten of Lesbos – ‘I Very Much Like Christians’
Earlier in the day, in the Greek island of Lesbos, home to the massive refugee camp Pope Francis visited in 2016, was the moment where multiple journalists came over to me noting that during their interviews, they started to tear up.
I could completely understand why… and experienced that sentiment myself…
In this place, even as the Pope would return to show his closeness to them personally, greeting many one by one, these individuals have endured more than one could ever know. We met many refugees seeking asylum from Syria, Afghanistan, Africa and Iraq, but without much luck.
What struck me however was the innocence of the children, smiling, giggling and playing with a stray dog, they called Alex, who decided to mischievously sit on the runway the Pope would walk along upon entering the camp, to give his remarks.
From Afghanistan, they made there journey, in a family of five, whose father, who is Muslim, expressed: ‘I like very much Christian people,’ wearing proudly a cross around his neck.
While about the Pope he said in his limited English, “the Pope is a big [great] man. I like him very much.”
He also expressed that he hopes to reach Finland.
Also from Afghanistan–one can easily see this new wave arriving from this nation in turmoil–was a sixteen-year-old young girl who told Exaudi said she arrived with her family, seven in total, in Lesbos in 2018.
“I hope to study math,” she said, noting that while some courses are offered on the island, but nothing adequate.
As far as the conditions, she admitted: “We are seven people, in a small container, with no electricity. It is very very hard, especially in the winter, when it gets terribly cold.”
She told Exaudi that this is better than when they were living in the Moria camp — which burnt down –, but still much is to be desired.
A young man from Cameroon, speaking in French, on the other hand, shared that he lost his wife in the war in Cameroon, and has three children. “This place,” he laments, “is not what they made it out to be.”
“A man needs his freedom,” he reflected candidly.
Also two young African girls in braids ran through the press with smiles and were happy to flash a smile and take a photo. Despite all they lived through, especially these children, they still smile and run around joyfully in their innocence, except one baby being held and his toddler brother standing who, giving chills, had faces of desolation and despair.
On this point, the Pope in his speech, would say that the world should be ashamed for being indifferent to the children suffering this reality.
He also would observe how the world in some way has come together to work toward combatting climate change, but that this is yet to happen for migration.
Exaudi interviewed the protagonists of the trip, including the Archbishop of Athens, leader of Cyprus’ Catholics, the Cypriot Ambassador to the Holy See, and the Vatican’s cardinal responsible for ecumenism. In these in-depth conversations, they shed light on the reality in these nations.
Not Always Welcome
For instance, the Archbishop of Athens, Theodoros Kontidis, S.J., applauded the advancements made between Catholics and Orthodox in Greece, but also lamented that no Orthodox bishop in the country would ever, for the sake of getting closer with Catholics, risk internal upset.
In fact, when Exaudi was part of a very restricted press pool for the Pope’s encounter with His Beatitude, Hieronymus II, Primate of Athens and All Greece, one initially sensed a certain coldness in the room as their respective delegations awaited their leaders, which however warmed up into nice, smiling moments between the Pontiff and the Archbishop.
This cordiality followed Hieronymus’ mention however of the ways Catholics historically had not always treated the Orthodox well, and was followed by the Pontiff’s apology.
Yet, not all were so thrilled about the Pope’s presence, evidenced by an elderly Orthodox priest our restricted press pool saw waiting outside upset, at that point silently, who, as the Pope entered, yelled in Greek: “Pope, You are a heretic.” Concerned Greek police intervened and the man fell to the ground.
In an interview, Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity also told Exaudi how this trip would contribute to better overcoming historical obstacles, and to reinforcing and rediscovering unity between Catholics and Orthodox.
However one should neither underestimate the importance of the Pontiff’s visit to Cyprus, where the Pope visited to promote unity of the divided nation, whose northern third is occupied by Turkish Cypriots, leaving the Greek Cypriots with the bottom two-thirds.
Addressing authorities upon his arrival at the Presidential Palace, the Pontiff lamented the division, and called for dialogue and peacemaking efforts to mend “the laceration.” Exaudi was there and watched the great welcome for the Pontiff and the nice exchanges between him and the president.
“The greatest wound suffered by this land,” the Pope said, “has been the terrible laceration it has endured in recent decades. I think of the deep suffering of all those people unable to return to their homes and their places of worship.”
Ever since a Turkish invasion in 1974, Cyprus has been split in two. It is the only European capital that is split in two, into a northern and southern part, as well. Many insiders voiced their conviction that Francis had come to push for dialogue and unity.
In Exaudi’s exclusive conversation with Fr. Gjerzy Kraj, Patriarchal Vicar for Cyprus of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, he explained how there is no Catholic priest in the north and how they work to shepherd the Catholics of the north, despite all the difficulties.
Also the Pontiff is well aware of the migration into the Orthodox country and its complex cultural composition. At the Mass the Pontiff celebrated in Cyprus, one could see numerous faithful, hardly of whom are native Cypriots, and who instead are from the Philippines and all over. He stressed in his homily that there is a need to look beyond each person’s group or community, or else there will never be unity in the Church.
Ambassador of Cyprus to the Holy See, George Poulides, also told Exaudi how the opinion of Francis in the country is favorable and how this trip should help contribute to unity.
“Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots are brothers, victims of a military aggression,” Poulides affirmed, noting “Cyprus needs the Pope’s impartial message of peace, given the difficult situation the island is facing in its occupied area.” This message, Francis delivered, throughout his entire stay in the island nation.
As one recalls this visit, one will remember that Pope Francis’ stamina and personal closeness to people who may have otherwise felt abandoned. Also as Exaudi watched the Pope reflect on the visit on his return flight to Rome, one could sense we will be seeing much more of this commitment and energy ahead.