Page 5, 11th May 2001

11th May 2001
Page 5
Page 5, 11th May 2001 — Treading a path of thorns to soften a hatred of 1000 years

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Locations: Athens, Tinos Town, Damascus


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Treading a path of thorns to soften a hatred of 1000 years

The Orthodox faithful outside Athens do not all share the bitterness that greeted the Pope, says Peter Newsham Midnight came — and it exploded

in an exuberance of goodwill, (pale echoes of which can be felt here at Christmas), and an ecstasy of joy, the focus of which was the celebration of Christ's Resurrection. The crashing crescendo of fireworks, the kissing and the hugging, the delightful and complete inte gration of children of all ages, (including adolescents who, in Britain, would be regarded as mostly intractable and sometimes hostile where religious matters are concerned), the humorous joshing of the splendidly panoplied priests as they vigorously dished out the decorated eggs to a crowd, every one of whom it seemed was known to them, the heady fragrance of orange blossom in this marbled courtyard like an Arab palace — all of this proclaimed the end of the time of suffering and the beginning of joy.

The time was the first minutes of the 15 April 2001 and the place was the Greek Orthodox church of Panagia in Tinos, which stands majestic at the upper end of a marble road, dominating Tinos Town. Here were the faithful. dressed impeccably for the greatest celebration of the year, noisily greeting old friends and comfortable familiars, exchanging gifts of eggs and icons, sporting the latest fashions, behaving in an entirely unforced and human way, with each other, and with the priests, whose chief characteristic was not awe but warmth. It was as if the very human gods of the ancient Greek world had set the tone for this event I which the Greeks of Tinos felt entirely at ease with their faith and Our Lord.

On to the stage of this very Greek drama, a few days after the celebration of Easter, with a slow labouring walk, comes a frail old man. shoulders stooped from his burden, hand outstretched in greeting. His face, once smiling, now drawn in a rictus of illness, is well known to us all. It is Pope John Paul II, and he has walked into a blizzard of long trailered hostility in Athens, where he has made the first visit of any pontiff in 1000 years to his opposite number, Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the Greek Orthodox or Eastern arm of the Christian Church.

Archbishop Christodoulos has had a thorny path to tread among his own clergy in even agreeing to the Pope's visit. His refusal to meet Pope John Paul at the airport, insisting instead that the pontiff should visit him in his palace, seemed at first to lack charity, but it may well have been a politic way of defusing Orthodox criticism of the visit by diminishing its profile.

The mighty police pres ence, to protect the Pope from both fundamentalist support ers of conservative Greek Orthodox clergy as well as the anger of left-wing groups, demonstrates the Govern ment's determination to overrule the hierarchy's resistance to the visit. But it has also ensured that the Pope is insulated from ordinary people because he has been compelled to be transported in an armour plated limousine, rather than the familiar glass-sided "Pope mobile", which would have allowed him at least the access of visibility on his journey through down-town Athens to the Olympic village, on his way to celebrate Mass.

Can the Church, which celebrates Easter with such humanity on the beautiful Clycladic island of Tinos, be the same institution as the Church which greets the Pope in Athens with shrill cries and posters proclaiming him as the "two-horned beast of the Apocalypse" or simply as "the Antichrist"? What can be the genesis of the hatred and anger which was displayed in Athens last weekend?

There has been no love lost between the Eastern and Western branches of the Christian Church since the schism of the eleventh century when high politics drove a wedge between the two increasingly competitive centres of the universal church. The fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453, as David Wiston Davies pointed out in this paper last month, built a Great Wall of China between Catholics and their Orthodox brothers in Christ as Eastern Christians suspected the Vatican's complicity, or at least its reluctance to save Constantinople from the Muslim tide.

It is not so much the doctrimud issues, which do not seem insurmountable given good will, as the emotional baggage of the poison of history which has kept the two Churches apart. In the last decade, Balkan conflict has been a mirror of the East-West religious divide as the Orthodox Serbs have fought an internecine war with other ethnic groups — Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians and Albanians whose religious identity is predominantly Roman Catholic or Muslim. The terrible laying waste of Serbian Orthodox monasteries in Kosovo, by Kosovars, both Christian and Muslim, the result of the most recent major convulsion of Balkan nationalism, and the recent unrest in Macedonia have kept open the running sore of East West schism.

It has been impossible for religious leaders in the past to insulate themselves and their flocks from the fallout of such human conflict, and even if the Princes of the Churches no longer ride into battle they still occupy symbolic positions vis a 'is the playing out of human enmities. It is hard to know whether Archbishop Christodoulos could have distanced himself more from the hard line conservative clergy and the fundamentalists ringing the bells of Athens churches to warn against the arch heretic, the anti-Christ, without loss of authority and alienation of his leadership. He has, perhaps, already risked the displeasure of his fellow priests by publicly recognising and welcoming the contrition and desire for reconciliation shown by the pontiff for the sins of Catholics against the Greek

Orthodox Church in the past. The sack of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204 has been a livid wound that no balm has yet succeeded in healing and the Pope's "apology". specifically for this, elicited bold approval from the archbishop as he warmly applauded the Pope's words.

But Archbishop Christodoulos has, like all leaders, a delicate political tightrope to walk. The Churches main agenda may be spiritual but they are not immune from the pressures of cultural and political conflict. They have to live in the world. Let us not forget the role our own pontiff played in the liberation of the Eastern bloc, and especially his beloved Poland, as he made his contribution to the demise of the Soviet Empire. Archbishop Cristodoulos must have regard to the tension, which has been increasing in the present pontificate, generated by the perceived intrusion of Eastern rite Catholics in Orthodox countries. Far from being seen by the Greek Orthodox Church as an ecumenical bridge, such congregations are viewed as a subversive influence and an aggressive vanguard of Western Catholicism.

owever, the Greek Orthodox Church in the Aegean Islands, and especially on Tinos, which, but for the hierarchy's hostility to his presence, the Pope would have visited, presents a quite different view of the Church to which a big majority of Greeks belong. The Easter exuberance is a truly inclusive affair in this very unsecular society. Although in April there are few foreigners in Tinos, they are included and drawn into the celebration of Easter, both inside the churches and on the street where the processions carrying the crucified Christ wind their way on Good Friday. The striking quality of humanity and friendliness in the conduct of the liturgy, both inside the churches and in the events out of doors, has a locus in devotion and belief. Instead of diminishing the spirituality of the celebration, these human qualities seemed to heighten it, speaking of an ease in the relationship between God and people.

Here, in rural Greece, where significantly, the word ecclesia means community. everyone seemed to be aware of the impending visit of Pope John Paul and many spoke about it with, it was clear, a sadness that such hostility and unkindness should be shown to hint, a fellow Christian. Several people seemed abashed at the

cruel and insulting language being used about the visit in the Greek Orthodox press and were reluctant to translate the distasteful material boldly displayed on the front page of a newspaper published by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Tinos, which is known as the Lourdes of Greece for its Holy Icon of the Virgin Mary at the Orthodox Church of Panagia (commemorating the divine vision of Saint Pelagia in 1822), is also Greece's most Catholic of places. Although they are outnumbered by four to one in the 10,000 strong population, Tinos' Catholics are a significant presence in the religious culture of the island and at Easter the warm rapprochement of the Greek Orthodox and the Catholic faiths is on display in a religious practice without reticence or animosity. Many Tiniots felt that there is no conflict between the churches here in the provinces and that the hostilities brewed up in Athens were a matter of high polities, not representative of the views of most members of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The marriage links of some Tiniots span the religious divide and it is common enough for Orthodox partners to attend Catholic Mass as well as for Catholic spouses to participate in the Orthodox liturgy. Pelagia, a poised, educated and beautiful 23 year old conscious Catholic, who bears the name of the Greek Orthodox saint specially celebrated on Tinos, has a wide circle of friends who are equally Catholic and Orthodox, and she is a fairly typical member of the young adult generation of that island.

In his remarkable pontificate John Paul 11 has sought, above all else, to bring a serenity and a Christ-like humanity to human relations and he has travelled tirelessly to spread his message of ecumenical solidarity. In following in the footsteps of Saint Paul he has trodden a path of thorns into Orthodox Greece. and after that, into the heart of Islam at the great Umayyad mosque in Damascus, where he prayed at the tomb of John the Baptist. But he was received, at the least

with dignity, and at best with understanding, in both places on his own personal crusade of reconciliation for which he does have the support of a majority of Christians. In a more philosophically liberal Church, especially in a rich Europe and North America, where more ecumenical attitudes prevail, the Pope is not saddled with a defensive fundamentalism.

But he is a man in a hurry. Bringing the olive branch into that land of olives and the

Orthodox Faith may be his last great mission of reconciliation. Perhaps the legacy of his journey may be a warming of the hearts and a liberating of the minds of the leaders of the Orthodox Church, echoing attitudes amongst the Orthodox faithful in Greece's Aegean islands. If our Pontiff can begin to create the mindset of reconciliation, a reconciliation of which he ceaselessly speaks, in the relations between the sundered Eastern and Western Christians, then this courageous old man can surely be celebrated as the peacemaker he has always wished to be.

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