Pope Francis heads to Greece on December 4. While this is Francis’ second trip to the country, he will be following in the footsteps of John Paul II who, in 2001, was the first pope to visit Greece in almost 1,000 years.
We look back on these two historic visits marked by ecumenical tensions and the migration crisis.
John Paul II: a very difficult trip to prepare
On May 4, 2001, John Paul II’s plane landed on the tarmac at Athens airport. The Pole thus became the first pope to visit Greece since the Great Schism of 1054, the original “divorce” of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches.
Nothing was won in advance. In the year leading up to the trip, the pope had repeatedly expressed his desire to visit Greece, particularly as part of a pilgrimage in the footsteps of St. Paul that he was planning in Malta and Syria. In particular, he wished to visit the Areopagus, where Saint Paul had given his famous speech reported in the Acts of the Apostles.
But this desire was very badly received by the Orthodox bishops. They openly expressed their fears about the “imperialist tendencies” of the head of the Catholic Church towards the other Christian churches. They also recalled the many grievances they have against Catholics, criticisms that go back even to the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204.
The Catholic archbishop of Athens and president of the Greek Bishops’ Conference at the time, Archbishop Nikolaos Foscolos, told I.Media that John Paul II himself was also perceived negatively since the fall of the Wall because of his action in the former Yugoslavia, which was perceived as hostile to Serbian – and therefore Orthodox – interests.
In spite of these many obstacles, exchanges between Orthodox leaders, the Apostolic Nuncio, and the Catholic bishops in Greece were increasing. The Greek president, Constantinos Stephanopoulos, went to Rome in January 2001 and handed over an invitation to the Pope. However, the final decision was taken by the Orthodox Holy Synod – the equivalent of a permanent council of the Catholic episcopate – which accepted the visit of the pontiff on March 7, 2001.
A reconciliation with the Greek Orthodox
Two months later, John Paul II crossed the Adriatic for a historic and complex journey. On May 4, during his meeting with the Greek president and the Orthodox archbishop of Athens and all of Greece, Christodoulos I, the Polish Pontiff officially asked for forgiveness from all the Orthodox.
“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 the forgiveness we beg of him,” he declared, drawing applause and a smile from Christodoulos I.
John Paul II evoked the Sack of Constantinople and acknowledged “some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day.”
“To God alone belongs judgement, and therefore we entrust the heavy burden of the past to his endless mercy, imploring him to heal the wounds which still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people,” he added.
Immediately afterwards, the two religious leaders signed a joint declaration that was read out in the evening on the Areopagus during a ceremony in memory of the Apostle Paul. This letter condemned all recourse to violence, proselytism and fanaticism in the name of religion and returned to the Christian roots of Europe.
The spokesman for the Holy See at the time, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, emphasized the importance of this moment: “Two months ago, the very idea of a trip to Greece was inconceivable, a month and a half ago it was unfeasible, and today a declaration has been signed in Greece.”
The next day, the Polish Pope celebrated a mass at the Athens Sports Palace before heading to the airport. The rest of his trip took him to Syria and Malta, before returning to Rome on May 9, 2001.
2016: Pope Francis’ visit to the migrants on the island of Lesbos
With John Paul II, Pope Francis is the only pope to have visited Greece. Fifteen years after the former’s trip, his trip was made in a very different context from that of the Polish Pontiff: that of the migration crisis and the controversial agreement between the European Union and Turkey on migrants.
The agreement provided for all migrants arriving in Greece who had not applied for asylum, or whose applications had been rejected, to be sent back to Turkey. Although criticized by the Holy See and many NGOs as a violation of international law, this agreement is still in place today.
On April 16, 2016, Pope Francis visited the island of Lesbos for a few hours to meet with migrants and refugees. Upon his arrival, the Pontiff was welcomed by the Greek head of state and Orthodox leaders.
“We have come to draw the world’s attention”
Together with the religious leaders, he then headed to the Mòria refugee camp, which at the time housed more than 5,500 people – making it one of the largest migrant camps in Europe until it was closed after a fire in 2020. There, the Pope and other religious leaders spent time with minors and asylum seekers. Then each gave a speech calling for more help for refugees.
“I have come here with my brothers, Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Hieronymus, simply to be with you and to hear your stories,” Pope Francis told the refugees. “We have come to draw the world’s attention to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution.”
The three religious leaders signed a joint statement calling on the international community to act on the migration crisis.
After a lunch with refugees of various nationalities and a meeting with the local Catholic community, Pope Francis joined the other religious leaders at the local Coast Guard facility to pray and commemorate those who had lost their lives on the migration route.
Then they threw laurel wreaths into the sea, a symbolic gesture in memory of the victims of the migration crisis that echoed Pope Francis’ 2013 gesture during his trip to Lampedusa.
Three refugee families on board the papal plane
The Pope chose to conclude his visit with another important symbolic gesture, that of taking three refugee families with him on board the papal plane. The three families are all Muslim and came from Syria.
Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Press Office at the time, explained that all the refugees were in the camp before the agreement between Turkey and the European Union and that they would be taken care of by the Community of Sant’Egidio upon their arrival in Rome.
During the return flight, Pope Francis confided that he had made his decision a week earlier, with the “inspiration” of one of his collaborators. He had “immediately accepted it” because he had “seen that it was the Spirit speaking.”
“I did not choose between Christians and Muslims,” he said. “These three families had their papers in order, and we could do it. There were, for example, two Christian families in the first list who did not have their papers in order. It is not a privilege, all twelve are children of God,” he concluded.