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Mourning bells to chime for pope’s visit

NCR Staff
Rome and Athens

In a half-built church in the hills outside Athens, more than 10,000 Greek Orthodox believers have trekked in recent weeks to see an icon of the Madonna of St. Nektarios, which they believe is bleeding from the neck.

Bleeding Madonnas are, in the Christian tradition, nothing new. The normal interpretation is that Mary is manifesting her sorrow at the sufferings of Jesus, or the world, or both.

This time, however, some conservative Greek monks have applied a novel spin. Mary is bleeding, they say, from her pain over the arrival on Orthodox soil of the archenemy of true Christianity: Pope John Paul II, head of the apostate Roman Catholic church.

As the pope prepared in early May to depart for Greece and Syria, the bleeding Madonna was just one of many hints that he may face unusually frosty receptions. The perils of traveling to places where Catholicism is a minority, where both ecclesiastical and secular politics can be painfully complex, seemed more apparent by the day.

In Greece, more than 2,000 Orthodox monks and activists marched in Athens April 30 in opposition to John Paul’s May 4 and 5 visit.

Protesters held aloft icons or the Byzantine flag with its two-headed eagle crest. Some waved black flags as they chanted against the pope. Banners in Greek and Italian said: “Get the anti-Christ pope out of Orthodox Greece.”

Officially, John Paul will arrive in Athens as a guest of President Costis Stephanopoulos, not Greek Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos. The ruling synod of the Greek Orthodox church, regarded as the most conservative of the 15 national churches that make up the Orthodox communion, has opted not to oppose the trip.

During his stay, however, John Paul II will almost certainly face protests from the zealous “Old Calendarist” Orthodox, who follow the ancient Julian calendar. Numbering around 125,000, they are a minority in a country where 98 percent of the 11-million-strong population are baptized in the officially recognized Orthodox church.

On the eve of the pope’s arrival, plans for two Friday protests were being circulated in Athens. One rally was to take place in the city center while John Paul visits the Areopagus, where St. Paul is said to have preached to the Athenians, arguing that their “unknown God” had been revealed in Christ. The second was to be staged down the street from St. Dionysus Cathedral, the headquarters of Greece’s small Catholic community, when John Paul stops there. Both were being organized by the Old Calendarists as well as the Hellenic Salvation Movement, an ultra-conservative Orthodox movement.

At an April 25 protest, around 500 Old Calendarist demonstrators blasted Christodoulos for approving the visit by “the unremorseful arch-heretic pope,” from whom they demanded an apology for Vatican sins.

They blasted John Paul II, for example, for having “declared a saint the arch-criminal Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac,” whom they blame for the murder of 1 million Orthodox Serbs by the pro-fascist Ustashe junta in Croatia from 1941 to 1945. Stepinac, who was the primate of Croatia at the time, is sometimes criticized for having been uncritical of the Ustashe.

Yet it is not merely the Old Calendarist minority that opposes the papal visit. Conservative wings of the main Greek Orthodox church, including the influential monks of Mount Athos, have also expressed umbrage. Orthodox monasteries in Greece, some 160 of them, are planning to ring their bells in the prescribed fashion for mourning for the entire period of 24 hours and 15 minutes that John Paul is in Greece.

In one sign of the tension, Archbishop Christodoulos has declined to take part in a joint prayer with John Paul II, citing a codicil of Orthodox law that prevents joint prayer when there are doctrinal differences.

In Athens, observers point out that the Greek Orthodox church is relatively young, having achieved independence only in 1850 as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, and quite touchy about its prerogatives. To take one example, Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens is currently jousting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey), recognized as “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, about 34 Greek dioceses where Constantinople retains a limited jurisdiction. Hostility is so strong that for almost eight years Bartholomeos was refused permission to enter Greece.

At the same time, Greek bishops are fighting off a bid by Christodoulos himself to be recognized as the country’s primate, seeing this too as a violation of the principle of local autonomy. “This is a fiercely independent church,” said one observer in Greece. “They don’t want any kind of pope over their heads, not in Rome, not in Constantinople, not even in Athens.” In this context, observers say, the pope can seem one more threat to a church that already feels besieged.

In an effort to placate Orthodox hostility, the Vatican has taken the unusual step of instructing the head of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, who normally would accompany the pope into Eastern territories, not to make the trip.

Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daoud, newly appointed by John Paul, is an adherent of the Syrian rite, and as such is among the “Eastern Catholics,” believers who practice Orthodox rites but profess loyalty to the pope. The Orthodox generally regard Eastern Catholicism as a “Trojan horse” used by the Vatican for gaining converts.

Daoud will skip Greece and join the pope in Syria.

In a similar move, the Vatican has instructed the head of the tiny Byzantine Catholic community in Greece to refrain from appearing at public events involving the pope for fear of antagonizing the Orthodox. Bishop Anarghyros Printesis leads a community of just 2,345 Eastern Catholic believers.

Catholic officials in Greece complained that a small stadium had been assigned for the papal Mass when larger ones are available, suggesting a deliberate effort to hold down crowd size. They also lamented the last-minute decision by Orthodox officials to pull out of a joint meal.

The deference to Orthodox sensibilities has irritated some Vatican officials, who privately complain that the Catholic church is being forced to “eat dirt” in order to make the trip.

In Syria, things appeared calmer on the eve of the May 5-8 papal visit. The country’s 17 million people include 2 million Christians, and the pope’s visit is expected to highlight the mix of cultures and rich history.

The highlight of John Paul’s four days in Syria will be a visit to the Omayyad Mosque. Located in the heart of Damascus, it was a place of worship for the Roman god Jupiter, and later a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, whose remains are still believed to rest inside.

The church became a mosque in the 8th century, less than 100 years after Muslim armies seized Syria from Byzantine rule.

John Paul is already the first pope to visit a mosque, and the Damascus visit is intended to further strengthen Catholic-Islamic ties.

Yet also in Syria, politics could cloud John Paul’s stay. The pope is scheduled to see the deserted town of Quneitra on the Golan Heights May 7, where he will pray for peace in an abandoned Greek Orthodox church and plant an olive tree as a symbol of peace.

Quneitra was captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and returned to Syria in 1974. Syria did not rebuild, preferring to show the rubble to foreign visitors as a symbol of Israel’s occupation.

Many Syrians will be expecting to hear a sharp condemnation of Israel from the pope. If it does not come, negative reaction could be widespread.

At the same time, one Catholic leader, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, has already pulled out of participating in the papal visit because he believes the itinerary is already too pro-Syrian. Sfeir has been a harsh critic of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

John Paul will stop in Malta May 8 and 9 before returning to Rome.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001