Why the Greek Orthodox Oppose Papal Visit

Interview with Theologian Yannis Spiteris

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ROME, APR. 30, 2001 (ZENIT.org-FIDES).- At least one theologian is optimistic about the outcome of the Pope´s visit to Athens, Greece, this Wednesday and Thursday.



"The atmosphere is hostile, but John Paul II´s trip will leave a profound mark," said Greek-Catholic theologian and Capuchin friar Yannis Spiteris. "It will serve to demystify the anti-papal climate rooted in Greece for centuries."

In recent days, protests in Greece have mounted against the Pope´s visit. Orthodox monks at Mount Athos have held a prayer vigil to ward off the Pope´s arrival.

Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud, who normally would accompany the Pontiff as prefect of the Holy See´s Congregation for Oriental or Eastern Churches, will not be with John Paul II after certain leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church said "no" to his presence in the papal entourage. The newly created cardinal, former patriarch of Antioch for Syrian Catholics, is persona non grata to many Orthodox because he is an Eastern Catholic.

In the following interview with the Vatican agency Fides, Father Spiteris spoke about what awaits the Pope.

--Q: How did the Pope´s idea to visit Athens develop?

--Father Spiteris: Before the Jubilee, in his letter "Pilgrimage to the Places Linked with the History of Salvation," Pope John Paul II expressed his desire to visit the Areopagus where St. Paul the Apostle once preached.

The Catholic Church made an official request but the Greek Orthodox Church refused under various pretexts. The Holy Synod said the Pope would have to ask forgiveness for offenses committed by Catholics in history, for the Fourth Crusade in 1204; he would have to withdraw some Catholic truths of faith, in other words, convert to Orthodoxy, or come as a head of state.

The visit seemed impossible. But earlier this year when Greek President Stephanopoulos visited the Pope in Rome, he invited him to come to Athens. The Orthodox Church had little choice. To avoid clashes with the government the Holy Synod agreed, making clear with a public statement that the Pope of Rome was coming as a head of state to make a personal pilgrimage.

--Q: What are the historical facts at the root of this opposition?

--Father Spiteris: Greek Orthodoxy has always rejected the West, since the time of the Byzantine Empire. Before the fall of Constantinople in 1453 there was a saying: "Better the Turkish turban than the Papal tiara."

Schoolbooks are still full of resentment. Children are brought up to hate the Catholic Church. There is a collective anti-Catholic, anti-Pope culture. Anti-Catholic atmosphere became more acute recently with the question of Oriental Catholics and the recent war in the Balkans.

Greek Catholics, who have existed for centuries, have never been accepted by the Greek Orthodox community. In 1900 under Stalin they were incorporated into the Orthodox Church. With the fall of Communism they reclaimed their properties, which had been confiscated by the state. The Orthodox consider them traitors, the result of Catholic proselytism.

During the Balkan war the Orthodox Church supported Serbia. Milosevic has property and money in Greece. They even accused the Pope of supplying arms to the Muslims to fight "our Serb brothers." Greece has always felt persecuted by the West.

--Q: What are the main problems at the theological level?

In theology the most serious difficulty is that Orthodox bishops and theologians do not recognize Catholic sacraments as valid, whereas the Catholic Church does recognize those of the Orthodox Church, considered a "sister Church," as Vatican II stated.

For the Orthodox, unless the Church believes in the "full truth of faith," its sacraments cannot be valid. The bishop of Corfu says the Church of Rome is a "worldly organization." Other problems are the "filioque" in the Creed, that is, whether the Holy Spirit descends from the Father or from the Father and the Son; the primacy of the Pope; Marian dogmas of the second millennium.

--Q: Are there other reasons?

These historical and theological problems could be overcome if the Greek Orthodox Church were not divided and polluted by fundamentalism. Radicals refuse ecumenism, dialogue, the sister-Church concept; they see the Pope as the root of all evil. Many Orthodox bishops think they are more Orthodox if they are more anti-Catholic.

There are para-church organizations which oppose even the official Orthodox Church, besides being strongly anti-Catholic. The archbishop of Athens fears the latter may take advantage of the papal visit to attack the official Orthodox Church and gain ground.

There are those who refuse the new Gregorian calendar accepted by the Greek Church and government at the beginning of 1900. They are about 1 million and they are separate from the official Church and have their own bishops. This old-calendar Church claims that its numbers are growing, thanks to conversions of Orthodox faithful. The archbishop of Athens was not in favor of the Pope´s visit, fearing it might accentuate the divisions in the Orthodox Church.

--Q: What do the people think?

--Father Spiteris: There are 45,000 native Greek Catholics and with Poles, Filipinos, Italians they are about 200,000. We are considered second-rate citizens. We do not have the same rights as the Orthodox; we suffer discrimination, despite the constitution.

Many are afraid to baptize their children as Catholics, because of the difficulties they will encounter in life. There are still hidden Catholics, which is absurd in a democratic country, a member of the European Union.

For us the Pope´s visit will be a source of great encouragement and comfort. The Pope is aware of the sufferings of Greek Catholics. We love our homeland and we suffer because we are not recognized as true sons and daughters of Greece.

--Q: Why is this?

--Father Spiteris: Greeks are always Orthodox; Catholics are "foreigners." Religion is identified with nationality. This is why the Orthodox Church insisted that religion should remain on identity papers. This linking of the state with religion is a legacy from Byzantine times. The empire was seen as an exterior form of the Church, the emperor was the vicar of Christ.

Still today, Orthodox Church laws are published in the official state bulletin. This is why Catholics have no rights; the Catholic Church in Greece has no juridical status. The battle went as far as the European Court in Strasbourg, and the Catholic Church in Greece won. The Greek government had to accept the European Court´s ruling and recognize the properties of the Greek Catholic Church, although without granting it juridical status.

Greece wants to be a modern secular state. President Stephanopoulos is open-minded and has great moral intelligence, although he is opposed by the New Democracy, which focuses on nationalism.

The Catholic Church in Greece must play the game of the European Union, pushing for a secular, free, independent and modern state. The Orthodox Church despises Europe, but accepts its funds, welcoming a recent EU contribution for the upkeep of the Mount Athos shrine.