The last time a pope was in Greece in 2001, I was part of the Vatican press corps covering John Paul II. Upon landing in Athens, I was asked by Greek TV to give a short interview – mostly because I spoke English, not for the quality of my insight, as experience would soon demonstrate.
Asked if John Paul would use his stop in Greece to apologize for outrages inflicted upon Orthodox Christians by Catholics, I replied that he’d already made such a mea culpa several times.
“Anyone expecting an apology on this trip,” I declared, “is likely to be disappointed.”
(In part, my confidence was based on the fact that we had advance texts of the pope’s remarks, and there was no such apology to be found.)
Greek national TV network played the interview just before broadcasting John Paul’s meeting with Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece – in which, naturally, the pontiff did exactly what I’d just predicted he wouldn’t, apologizing for “occasions past and present when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned, by action or omission, against their Orthodox brothers and sisters.”
Believe me, Francis has nothing on John Paul as a “Pope of Surprises”!
In truth, I should have known John Paul would drop in something along those lines, given the hostility many Greek Orthodox exuded to the presence of a pope.
In the days leading up to his arrival, thousands of Greek Orthodox made a pilgrimage to see a statue of a bleeding Madonna in the hills outside Athens – weeping, they believed, from her pain over the arrival on Orthodox soil of the archenemy of true Christianity.
A protest march was staged while the pope was in town, featuring icons and the Byzantine flag. Banners in Greek and Italian said: “Get the anti-Christ pope out of Orthodox Greece!”
What’s striking about Pope Francis’ outing to Greece Saturday, in the company of both Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Archbishop Ieronymous II of Athens, who succeeded Christodoulos in 2008, is how free it’s been so far of such fireworks.
Granted, it’s a lightning-quick stop on the island of Lesbos, intended to make a statement in defense of the waves of refugees and immigrants washing up there, at a time when Europe’s political climate seems to be drifting in the direction of closing doors.
Nonetheless, given sensitivities in Greece to perceived Roman imperialism, the fact that a pope could visit the country and spark precious little blowback, even from hardline Orthodox voices, is striking. (Ieronymous did advise Francis not to turn his stop into a “PR show,” but that was in the context of welcoming him and urging European governments to listen to the pope.)
Perhaps what the lack of resistance suggests is that Francis’ accent on what might be called an “Ecumenism of the Here and Now” is actually working.
In a nutshell, when Francis reaches out to other Christians, or for that matter followers of other faiths, he does not begin with history, with what went wrong in the past. Instead, he focuses on the present, and what the two parties can do together right now to move the ball on their shared social, political and cultural concerns.
Back in January 2014, Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires gave a lecture at Rome’s Gregorian University on the new pope’s approach to Catholic/Jewish relations. Skorka, of course, is an old friend of the Argentine pontiff, and the two men once published a book together.
Skorka said that while Jewish/Catholic exchanges in the West often pivot on the legacy of European anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and so on, the focus in Latin America is on current events.
In part, Skorka suggested, that reflects the climate in Argentina created by the economic crisis that erupted in the late 1990s, which caused widespread unemployment, riots, and the collapse of the government, leaving half the country’s population and 70 percent of its children in poverty.
“The crisis created a situation in which religious institutions were called upon to work together,” Skorka said. “There was lots of coordinated effort to help people in dire need,” adding that the situation induced religious leaders to adopt “a tremendously pragmatic” form of dialogue.
Such pragmatism is what Francis is all about.
When he’s reached out to Bartholomew in the past, it’s not been to discuss the Crusades or the “Filioque” clause. Instead, the two men came together to stage a peace prayer in the Vatican gardens between the presidents of Israel and Palestine.
Similarly, when Francis met the Patriarch of Moscow in Havana in February, at least from his side it was clear his primary interest was in how the two sister churches could come together on matters such as the protection of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Of course, if a divided Christianity is ever to reach the “full structural communion” that’s always been the end-game of the ecumenical movement, at some point the conversation will have to turn to resolving past disputes.
For now, perhaps Francis is leading the Christian family into a new spirit of partnership, in which that conversation, when it does come, won’t seem so hopelessly divisive.