ATHENS – Pope Francis met Saturday with members of Catholic and Orthodox communities which have a checkered past, offering encouragement to his own minority flock and urging Orthodox leaders to work toward unity, during the opening leg of a three-day stop in Greece.
Speaking to bishops and religious in Greece, Pope Francis said that just as Saint Paul faced difficulty when he first came to Athens to preach, “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.”
Catholics in Greece are a small minority, making up just three percent of the country’s population of 11 million, around 97 percent of whom officially adhere to the Orthodox Church, declared as the “prevailing religion” in Greece’s constitution.
Minority churches in Greece do not enjoy exemptions and must pay tax on all donations and Sunday collections they obtain, as well as clergy salaries. It has often been difficult for the Catholic Church to receive public funding and Catholic clergy in the past have been refused health care, while Catholic church structures have struggled to ensure basic maintenance is carried out.
Many Catholic charitable projects were forced to shut down after a 48 percent tax rise in 2013, and while the situation has improved some, the underlying problems are far from resolved.
There has been tension between Catholics and Orthodox since the Great Schism of 1054, and while relations between Catholics and Orthodox in Greece are generally good, many Orthodox still blame the Vatican for perceived misdeeds against their community, from the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 to the bombing of Serbia in 1999.
Under Stalin in the 1900s, Catholics were incorporated as part of the Orthodox Church. Once communism fell, the Catholic Church reclaimed properties that had been confiscated by the state and began to hold their own ceremonies again, which made some Orthodox view these faithful as traitors and victims of Catholic proselytism.
In 2001, Saint Pope John Paul II became the first Catholic leader to visit Greece in more than 1,200 years. Prior to John Paul’s visit, protests were organized, with Orthodox monks at Mount Athos holding a prayer vigil to ward off the Polish pope’s arrival.
Pope Francis, who has made ecumenical and interfaith dialogue a cornerstone of his papacy, attempted to achieve further healing during his meetings in Athens Saturday, but his visit drew some backlash. An elderly Orthodox priest was carried away by police after shouting “Pope, you are a heretic!” as Francis arrived for his meeting with Greek Orthodox leaders.
Francis touched down in Athens Saturday following a Dec. 2-4 visit to Cyprus, paying a courtesy visit to Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Shortly after, he visited the Orthodox archbishopric in Greece, where he had a private meeting with Hieronymos II, Orthodox Archbishop of Athens and All Greece.
In a speech to Orthodox leaders after, he spoke of the shared roots and history between Catholic and Orthodox.
“Underground, hidden, frequently overlooked, those roots are nonetheless there and they sustain everything,” he said, noting that these shared roots come from the preaching of the apostles in early Christianity.
“Tragically, in later times we grew apart. Worldly concerns poisoned us, weeds of suspicion increased our distance and we ceased to nurture communion,” he said, noting that the Catholic Church “shamefully” made its own mistakes, turning to “actions and decisions that had little or nothing to do with Jesus and the Gospel, but were instead marked by a thirst for advantage and power, gravely weakened our communion.”
Pope Francis asked forgiveness for past grievances caused by Catholics but said comfort can be found in the fact “that our roots are apostolic and that, notwithstanding the twists and turns of time, what God planted continues to grow and bear fruit in the same Spirit.”
“Let us fearlessly help one another to worship God and to serve our neighbor, without proselytism and in full respect for the freedom of others,” he said, and prayed that a spirit of love would overcome “every form of resistance and make us builders of communion.”
“How can we testify before the world to the harmony of the Gospel, if we Christians remain separated? How can we proclaim the love of Christ who gathers the nations, if we ourselves are not united?” he asked.
Francis urged Catholics and Orthodox to carry out joint acts of charity toward those who are suffering, particularly those most impacted by poverty and Greece’s economic crisis, and to pray for one another.
“We need prayer for one another in order to bring to the world God’s consolation and to heal our wounded relationships,” he said, praying that God would “help us not to remain paralyzed by the negative experiences and prejudices of the past, but instead to view reality with new eyes.”
“In this way, past trials will leave room for present consolations, and we will be comforted by the treasures of grace that we will rediscover in our brothers and sisters.”
Shortly after his meeting with Hieronymos Pope Francis made his way to the Catholic cathedral of Saint Dionysius in Athens, where he met with representatives of the Catholic Church, including bishops, priests, religious, consecrated persons, seminarians, and catechists.
Pointing to the fact that Catholics in Greece are a minority, he drew a parallel with Saint Paul, who he said, “was alone, in the minority, unwelcome and with little chance of success,” when he first arrived to Athens, “but he did not allow himself to be overcome by discouragement.”
Rather, Paul refused to give up or to complain, the pope said, insisting that this “is the attitude of a true apostle: to go forward with confidence, preferring the uncertainty of unexpected situations rather than the complacency that comes from the force of habit. Paul had that courage.”
Pope Francis urged Greece’s Catholics to strive for the same kind of trust that Paul had, “for being a small Church makes us an eloquent sign of the Gospel, of the God proclaimed by Jesus who chooses the poor and the lowly, who changes history by the simple acts of ordinary people.”
The Church, he said, should not strive for numbers in a spirit of conquest, which he said is dangerous and “can tempt us to triumphalism. We are asked to take our inspiration from the mustard seed, which appears insignificant, but grows slowly and quietly.”
“Consider your smallness a blessing and accept it willingly,” he said, saying this “disposes you to trust in God and in God alone.”
“Being a minority – and do not forget that the Church throughout the world is a minority – does not mean being insignificant, but closer to the path loved by the Lord, which is that of littleness,” he said.
Francis also told bishops and religious in Greece that having an attitude of acceptance is crucial to their work of evangelization.
An attitude of acceptance, he said, “does not try to occupy the space and life of others,” but attempts to plant the seeds of the Gospel into their lives and is able to recognize the ones God has already planted.
Saint Paul, the pope said, respected his listeners and “welcomed their religiosity…He did not impose; he proposed. His style was based not on proselytizing, but on the meekness of Jesus.”
“Today we too are asked to cultivate an attitude of welcome, a style of hospitality, a heart desirous of creating communion amid human, cultural and religious differences,” he said, insisting that the challenge is “to develop a passion for the whole, which can lead us – Catholics, Orthodox, brothers and sisters of other creeds – to listen to one another, to dream and work together, to cultivate the mystique of fraternity.”
Past wounds are still present and the path of dialogue that can heal these wounds is a slow process, he said, but encouraged Catholics to “courageously embrace today’s challenge.”
Noting how the majority of people left after hearing Paul preach, with just a small number staying to follow him, Pope Francis insisted that “God weaves the threads of history, from those days until our own.”
“It is my fervent desire that you continue the work in your historic laboratory of faith and do it with the help of these two ingredients, confident trust and acceptance, in order to savor the Gospel as an experience of joy and fraternity,” he said.
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