John Paul II's visit to Greece in May was the first by a pope in 1,291 years. In recent weeks, plans for his visit had been strongly criticized by Greek Orthodox clergy and laity, but in Athens he defused some of the hostility by asking God to forgive Roman Catholics for sins committed against Orthodox Christians.

The Pope was invited to visit Greece by the country's president, Costis Stephanopoulos, and not by the Church of Greece.

The pontiff, accompanied by four cardinals, went immediately to the presidential residence in Athens and made a courtesy visit to Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece. The Greek archbishop said the Pope's visit "brings us joy. Our joy is, however, overshadowed by the fact of our division."

Archbishop Christodoulos then referred to religious differences between the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, some of which date back more than 1,000 years. The Pope replied, "For the occasions past and present, when sons and daughters of the Catholic Church have sinned by action or omission against their Orthodox brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us forgiveness."

Peter Moschovis of the evangelical Hellenic Human Rights Watch says the Pope's visit may lead to a softening of Orthodox suspicion. "Both the Pope and Orthodox leaders have called for Christians to present a united front against the forces of secularism in Europe," Moschovis said. "Commentators, discussing the Pope's visit, have rightly noted that there are three Christian churches in Europe—including Protestants—and that we need to cooperate more fully, especially on social issues."

John Paul, also visiting Syria's capital, Damascus, made similar efforts to build bridges by reaching out to Muslims and their leaders.

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