Papal Pilgrimage in the Footsteps of Paul
From May 4 to 9 the Pope went on what he called “a pilgrimage in St Paul’s footsteps” – to Athens, Damascus, and Malta. His purpose was “to give a boost to unity among Christians, especially with the Orthodox, and to dialogue and cooperation with the Muslim world”. His journey, he said, was “very significant from the ecumenical and interreligious point of view”.
In Athens he asked “that Catholics be forgiven for sins committed against Orthodox Christians during their 1000-year separation”. His confession was greeted with applause. “Those applauding were not just Primate Archbishop Christodoulos of Greece,” said one report, “but all the highest leaders of the Synod . . . Suddenly, one had the impression that a great stone was being removed from the road toward unity.” The Pope and Archbishop Christodoulos later issued a joint declaration between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
In Damascus the Pope became the first pontiff to enter a mosque. He called for a new era of relations between Christians and Muslims. Syrian President Bashar Assad used the occasion for a fierce vilification of Israel. Some commentators assailed the Pope for not clearly condemning the tirade. Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote that the Pope’s “silence was deafening. Where was the outspoken and at the same time sophisticated critic of dictatorship and oppression? . . . Papal silences in the 1930s have caused the Catholic Church shame and calumny from which it has not totally extricated itself to this very day.”
The Pope’s tour culminated in his visit to Malta, with a beatification mass attended by 200 000 people. During one homily, the Pope reviewed the history of Christianity in Malta, which began when Paul was shipwrecked off the island. In another homily he entrusted the people to the intercession of the Virgin Mary and those who had just been beatified. If one needed proof of how far his Christianity is removed from that of the Apostle Paul, one has only to read reports in Romanist sources of his other homilies and prayers during this international trip – his ninety-third since 1978.
We see also a further example of the mesmerising power of the Papacy over the nations. Many expected that the Pope’s visit to Greece would result in his smarting under the overt hostility of the Orthodox Church. Instead he was applauded. A Greek newspaper poll showed that 56.8% expressed their support for the union of the Churches, and more than half of those surveyed now had a favourable opinion of the Pope.
Such reports call us to plead all the more with the God of heaven to bring to an end this mystery of iniquity, which works so effectively.