Pope’s Cyprus/Greece trip put a light on overlooked tragedies, priest says

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ROME — Pope Francis’s trip to Cyprus and Greece was a reminder that even though there’s a global pandemic, too many human tragedies are being forgotten due to a single-minded focus on COVID-19, said an official of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

“As a Catholic – Universal – Church, we’ve taught for centuries that there is only one baptism: there is no European baptism, no Filipino baptism, not an Eritrean one, nor from the United States. In the eyes of God, we’re truly equals, and he’s not asking us for our passport or visa,” said German Father Nikodemus Schnabel. 

The jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem extends over Latin-rite Catholics in Cyprus, Palestine, Israel and Jordan, reason why Schnabel, the Patriarchal Vicar for Migrants and Asylum Seekers, attended the first leg of the pontiff’ Dec. 2-6 trip.

He said he finds himself “humbled” by the fact that he celebrates Mass with “modern day slaves” and people who “have been trafficked” because “I honestly believe that they are closer to God than I am as a monk, theologian and priest. I cannot describe it.”

“And it makes me wonder, who we are as Catholics, if we can actually convince ourselves into believing that there are first and third class human beings,” he told Crux on Monday.

What follows are excerpts of Schnabel’s conversation with Crux.

Crux: Why were you in Cyprus last week?

Schnabel: I think it was clear that the question of pastoral care for migrants was the number one concern for Pope Francis in this trip, and I’m the vicar responsible for migrants and asylum seekers, so it’s not a strange idea that I was there! And of course, the patriarch had asked for us vicars who could attend to do so. And I believe five of us were, with the exception of the vicar for Palestine.

What did you think about the trip as someone who works with migrants? 

I think it was a very European trip, addressed to the whole world, yes, but with a special focus to Europe, where we see an over focusing on the pandemic. It’s all about COVID-19, vaccination, and the virus. And the media coverage of the trip was a bit of a déjà vu to the one to Iraq earlier this year, with journalists asking why he’s going when there’s still a pandemic. 

And I think that it’s particularly important that he went during the pandemic to show the world, and especially Europe, that there are other problems, not just COVID. During his first speech in Cyprus he criticized this “nostalgic” sentiment some have of the recent, pre-pandemic “good old days,” when these times, as Francis said, were not really that good. Because we had three wounds that were opened before the pandemic, and are still bleeding, even when they’ve been partially forgotten. And the pope had them very present throughout the entire trip.

What are those three wounds?

The first one is the political wound: Inside the European Union, there is a divided capital, that of Cyprus. And he also spoke about this in Greece, talking about democracy, he said that the rising nationalism and populism is a political wound. And the pope touched this wound, calling to tear down walls, build bridges and sow the seed of reconciliation.

The second wound throughout the trip was the need to build ecumenical bridges, particularly with the Eastern churches.

And the third wound, obviously, were the migrants, those 80 million people around the world who are seeking refuge.

I have this feeling that Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ was mostly very well received throughout Europe, with many people appreciating the fight against climate change and who were really open to listening to that message. But the same cannot be said when it comes to Fratelli Tutti, his [2020] encyclical on human fraternity. It’s not so highly appreciated, because this idea of all of us being brothers and sisters, members of mankind, has been silenced. 

I mean, defining the trip in one line, I would say that the pope said to Europe: “Thank you for reading Laudato Si’, please read Fratelli Tutti.” Even many Catholic countries are all in for saving creation, and it’s become a mainstream issue. But treating migrants and refugees as our siblings is something we’re still struggling with.

Can the pope actually help heal this wound of migration?

People look at this trip, at what Pope Francis said, and say “yes yes, big words.” But I think it was important that at the very beginning he reminded us that the last time he’d been to Lesbos in 2016, he’d brought 12 people with him, and they haven’t been forgotten: He met with them right before he took off last Thursday. It’s a prophetic sign, as if saying “I’m not only preaching, I’m doing it,” and it was not a public relations action. And again, after this trip, the Vatican will help relocate 50 migrants who are in Cyprus. 

And though he’s much more than a politician, I think that he’s arguably the most credible political leader when it comes to the migrant crisis worldwide, acknowledging that we cannot solve this problem simply by delivering strong speeches. And Francis has also been very clear on the fact that Cyprus alone, Greece alone or the Holy See alone cannot solve the migrant question, international cooperation is needed. And again, it comes back to Fratelli tutti: all of civil society, political leaders and the international community as a whole, we have to do something to address a crisis of catastrophic magnitude.

I think that with this trip, Pope Francis wanted to make sure that, during this time in which we seem to be single-mindedly only worried about COVID, we don’t forget our brothers and sisters, especially before Christmas. We need to open our hearts and think about these people.

Talking about Christmas: You’re living in the Holy Land, where much of the Christian faith was born. How will you be celebrating it?

We will be able to celebrate it because we have no pilgrims, and the Christians living here permanently are not so many, so we know each other. I think the world has a wrong view about Christianity in the Holy Land, because they see the many churches and the monasteries, and they have to wait hours in line to visit the Holy Sepulchre. But now, if you’re here, you don’t have to wait at all, because we’re very few. This means we can celebrate Christmas. Besides, we are all vaccinated and have our boosters. Today, it’s very complicated to enter Jerusalem, but once you’re here, life is almost normal. 

Personally, I will be with my people but not in my monastery: I’m in charge of more than 100,000 brothers and sisters, migrants and asylum seekers, living throughout the country, coming from many nations and with very different cultures and also different rites. So I try to be as present for them as possible, being with different communities during the different moments of this time. We have people from India, French and English speaking Africa, from Ukraine.

I try my best to really appreciate them, because they are witnesses of Christ here in the Holy Land, and they are invisible, because we’re not celebrating in beautiful churches with their beautiful bell towers, but very often we’re celebrating Mass in rented basketball courts, gyms or other places that do not look nor feel like a Church, but I come to where they are.

You were appointed patriarchal vicar in September. How do you feel about this upcoming Christmas season, which you will celebrate with migrants and asylum seekers in the place where the first Christmas took place?

For me this has a very strong meaning, because what we celebrate on Christmas is that God became man, but not in a place but a very hidden place. The Grace of God began in a hidden place, so I’m really looking forward to this Christmas, with the invisible Christians in the hidden places. I’m not saying it will be “nice” in a romanticized way, but strongly connected to what Christmas is truly about. 

As a Catholic – Universal – Church, we’ve taught for centuries that there is only one baptism: There is no European baptism, no Filipino baptism, not an Eritrean one, nor from the United States. In the eyes of God, we’re truly equals, and he’s not asking us for our passport or visa. I’m personally humbled to be celebrating with this people who have such as strong faith, these people who are modern-day slaves, who have been traffiked, who’ve faced many things. Their faith is incredible, and I honestly believe that they are closer to God than I am as a monk, theologian and priest. I cannot describe it. And it makes me wonder, who we are as Catholics, if we can actually convince ourselves into believing that there are first and third class human beings.

And Pope Francis is often accused of being a leftiest or a communist for his message, but this is not his message: It’s the Gospel’s.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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