By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Before St. John Paul II arrived in Greece in 2001 there were protests by Orthodox faithful and an all-night prayer vigil by Orthodox monks on Mount Athos, praying that the pope would not come.
But things have changed. “You see it, you hear it and it’s huge,” said Maristella Tsamatropoulou, spokeswoman for Caritas Hellas, the Catholic charity in Greece.
Caritas and Apostoli, the Greek Orthodox charitable agency, have signed a formal cooperation agreement and have been working together for years. First, they sought to respond to the needs created by Greece’s major economic crisis and, now, they have joined forces to help the tens of thousands of refugees stuck in the country.
Working together has led to better relations between Orthodox and Catholics generally, Tsamatropoulou said in a telephone interview April 12. “Obviously, we are a small minority and there still are some bishops and monks who are hostile to Catholics, but their numbers are decreasing.” Catholics make up less than 2 percent of the Greek population.
“The personality of this pope has helped,” the Caritas spokeswoman said. “We hear from believers and nonbelievers, ‘You have an extraordinary boss.'”
Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople were scheduled to visit Lesbos, Greece, April 16 to highlight the plight of the refugees and migrants.
Jesuit Father David Nazar, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, said he believes that for Pope Francis, as well as for Patriarch Bartholomew, the primary motive of the Lesbos meeting is “compassion for the world; it’s pastoral.”
Although not planned as an “ecumenical meeting,” he said, their gesture can “show the unity of believers, show what God wants to happen in the world” and shine light on a situation of human suffering.
For many Christians, the official Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue, while necessary for establishing full unity, is dealing with issues far removed from their everyday lives. Even with different opinions on the best political policies needed to deal with the refugee crisis, the outreach of the pope and patriarch is something very concrete.
For Catholics, a pope’s involvement in the refugee issue is much more natural than a patriarch’s outreach would be for many Orthodox, Father Nazar said. The Catholic Church has a long history of being socially involved, particularly through its schools, universities and hospitals, going into the world to serve others. Generally speaking, he added, in Eastern churches the focus is on monasteries, where people would come for spiritual solace. The monks did not go out to them.
And ecumenically, “any step like this that religious leaders can do together breaks down walls,” he said.
Patriarch Bartholomew, who studied at the Oriental Institute, “is very courageous” in risking criticism for going to Lesbos with the head of the Roman Catholic Church as well as for making such an obvious social intervention, Father Nazar said.
The pope and patriarch meeting “in a pastoral mode” communicates an important message to a specific sector of Orthodoxy — “those who want to step out pastorally and be more engaged with everything that is happening in the hearts and minds of people in the modern world,” he said.
The Jesuit said it is interesting that the Lesbos trip is taking place two months before leaders of all the world’s Orthodox churches are set to hold their first council meeting in centuries and one of the topics is “what is the mission of Orthodoxy in the world.”
The “Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church,” commonly referred to as the pan-Orthodox council, is scheduled for June 16-27 in Crete. Preparations for the meeting have been going on for decades.
Jack Figel, the U.S.-based chairman of the Orientale Lumen conferences and foundation, said St. John Paul’s visit to Greece and, especially, his public apology for the historical wrongs done to Orthodox Christians, opened doors and “created a much warmer relationship between the Orthodox Church of Greece and the Catholic Church.”
Going to Greece with Patriarch Bartholomew gives Pope Francis’ visit “a long-term ecumenical dimension,” showing how the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church globally can and do work together for the good of society, said Figel, a Ruthenian Catholic long involved in Catholic-Orthodox relations.
While some Greek Orthodox likely are “not happy” with the visit, Figel said, “they are not being so vocal.” Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and the synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece invited Pope Francis, which could be seen as an indication that their faithful are ready for progress in building Christian unity and providing a united Christian witness in service.
In addition, Pope Francis’ personality, gestures and particularly the way he constantly refers to himself as “bishop of Rome” — not as pope — is “pleasant for the Orthodox to hear,” he said. While in official theological discussions, the Orthodox have recognized in theory the value of a universal primate for the Christian church, they still have serious reservations about how the traditional ministry of the pope has been exercised.
The joint visit of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew also may have an impact — at least in the perception of Orthodox faithful around the world — on the pan-Orthodox council, Figel said.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Orthodox churches, and Pope Francis met its head, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, in Cuba in February. Meeting the ecumenical patriarch now, Figel said, reaffirms Pope Francis’ recognition of Patriarch Bartholomew’s spiritual leadership among the Orthodox as well as “elevating in the world’s mind” the role of the ecumenical patriarch.
“My guess is that Pope Francis is a brilliant tactician and strategist,” Figel said. “It may have been an inspiration of the Holy Spirit — I hope it has been — but it certainly seems to me as an outsider that there is a connection between Havana, Lesbos and the Great Council.”
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Follow Wooden on Twitter @Cindy_Wooden.