On Thursday, May 4, Pope John Paul II will leave Rome to begin the 93rd foreign voyage of his pontificate. Although the plans for this trip have not been subjected to careful analysis in Western Europe and the Americas, this could be the most delicate and even dangerous of all the Pope’s journeys. 

The director of Rome’s Fides news service, Father Bernardo Cervellera, provided an astute preview of the trip. In an editorial that appeared in the Fides bulletin, Father Cervellera wrote:  
"The Vatican organizers say this journey is the most difficult, not because of the Pope’s age but because of the consequences of millennial divisions, narrow-mindedness, old fights, and new wars. But the ticket of thorns through which he will have to pass does not frighten the aging Pontiff--who, to carry his witness of Christ everywhere, is determined once again to ‘put out into the deep,’ just as he has encouraged the entire Church to do, in his recent letter Novo Millennio Inuente."

The first stop on the Pope’s itinerary is Athens, where he will confront hostility, public demonstrations, and even death threats. Then, after a day in a country where the divisions within Christianity are bitter and deep, he will travel to Damascus, to be greeted by a Christian community that could serve as a model of ecumenical amity—in a country that is predominantly Muslim. And on his return trip to Rome he will stop for just over one day in Malta: an island nation with a rich Catholic history. 

The Pope’s visit to Greece may be marred by open conflicts between the country’s small Catholic minority and the Greek Orthodox majority. There are only about 50,000 native Catholics in Greece (although emigrants from Italy, the Philippines, and elsewhere bring the total Catholic population up to around 200,000). The Catholic Church enjoys no juridical status in Greece, and the Pope is coming to a land where many religious leaders have made it clear that he will not be welcome.

Catholics often feel oppressed in a land where 97 percent of the population (that is, about 10 million people) belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church: perhaps the single Eastern Church that has been consistently most hostile toward the Holy See in the centuries since the Great Schism. While the Catholic Church recognizes the Orthodox as "sister churches," in this case the recognition is not mutual. The Greek Orthodox Church looks upon Rome as an enemy, regards the Pope as a heretic, and does not recognize the validity of Catholic sacraments. 

In June 1999, when he wrote of his desire to make a Jubilee pilgrimage to "the sites connected to the history of salvation," the Holy Father included the Areopagus: the historic site outside Athens where St. Paul delivered the address that is described in the Acts of the Apostles. But Greek Orthodox leaders quickly made it clear that the Roman Pontiff would not receive a formal invitation for a visit. The Orthodox monks of the famous abbey at Mount Athos stirred up a campaign of propaganda against the Pontiff. The Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church announced that the Pope could come only if he apologized for the historical "errors" of the Roman Church, and in effect accepted the doctrinal authority of the Greek Orthodox hierarchy. For many months, the papal visit appeared to be an impossibility.

Then a breakthrough occurred: On a January visit to Rome, Greek President Constantinos Stephanopoulos issued a formal invitation for the Pontiff to visit. Armed with that bid from the government, John Paul then wrote to Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens, asking the Greek Orthodox hierarchy to extend an invitation as well. Caught in a political bind, the Holy Synod did respond with an invitation, but the gesture was clearly made without enthusiasm.

Archbishop Christodoulos has indicated that he will not greet the Pope when his plane arrives in Greece, nor will he participate in any formal ecumenical liturgy. And Christodoulos is generally
regarded as perhaps the most friendly of all Orthodox prelates in his attitude toward the Pope! Other Orthodox leaders have denounced the Roman Pontiff as a heretic, even referring to him as the Antichrist. The monks of Mount Athos have renewed their anti-Catholic propaganda campaign. Several groups have promised public demonstrations against the papal visit. Posters have appeared on the streets of Athens portraying John Paul as "the Beast of the Apocalypse." 

Because of the public hostility, the Pope’s stay in Greece will be relatively quiet. Vatican organizers had hoped to line up a large stadium for an outdoor Mass in Athens; instead they have settled for a 20,000-seat facility, where tight security measures will be in place. When John Paul travels to the Areopagus, there will be no major public liturgy; only 100 people will participate in a ceremony centered around the reading from the Acts of the Apostles. 

The Vatican has been careful to avoid any gesture that could rouse further opposition to the Pope’s visit. When Orthodox leaders protested the appearance of Cardinal Ignace Moussa Daoud on the  list of Vatican officials who would accompany the Pope, the Vatican announced that the Syrian prelate would not make the trip to Athens, but meet the Pontiff in Damascus. (The cardinal was a particular focus of hostility because he is a Patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church—a body which was once aligned with the Orthodox churches, but has been restored to full communion with the Holy See, in a move the Greek Orthodox regard as surrender to heresy.) In an interview broadcast on Greek television, papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls took great pains to emphasize that the focus for the Pope’s trip will be on the essential unity among Christians—implicitly assuring the Orthodox of Greece that the Holy Father would not excite any new doctrinal controversies. 

Still, the Holy Father—who has shown himself capable of meeting tough diplomatic challenges again and again-- may be able to make some ecumenical inroads in Greece. Although he will not preside at a liturgy with the Pope, Archbishop Christodoulos will be involved in the ceremony at the Areopagus, along with the Catholic Archbishop Nikolaos Foscolos of Athens. The Orthodox prelate will also pay a courtesy call on the Pope at the residence of the apostolic nuncio in Athens,
and play host for a return visit by Pope John Paul the next day. 

Father Yannis Spiteris, OFM Cap, a Greek theologian who teaches in Rome, told the Fides news service that he is confident the Pope will be able to overcome the hostility he meets in Greece. "At the moment there is a lot of noise," Father Spiteris conceded. "But as soon as the people see that the Pope comes with humility, on a mission of love, and Greek Orthodox believers see a priest who suffers--a bishop to be admired, a pilgrim, not a conqueror--then the argument will stop and the hatred will dissolve."

The director of Fides offers a similar prediction. "Pope Paul VI kissed the slipper of Athenagoras I," Father Cervellera recalls. "John Paul II has accepted this humiliating path to bear witness to what unites Christians." He adds: "The humiliation accepted with love has something of the majesty of Christ scourged at the pillar: shunned by all, he unites all in an even stronger bond."

From an ecumenical standpoint, the Pope’s next stop—in Syria—will bring a dramatic and welcome change. The Orthodox and Catholic patriarchs of Syria enjoy extraordinarily close and
warm relations. (Indeed, the Catholic patriarchs often seem friendlier toward their Orthodox counterparts than toward the Holy See.) The Orthodox Patriarch Ignace IV Hakim of Antioch, head of the largest Christian community in Syria, has distanced himself from the Greek Orthodox critics of the Pope, saying "we have our own Orthodox personality, and our circumstances are different." When he joins with the Pope in an ecumenical liturgical service at the Dormition basilica in Damascus, the Patriarch says, "We will recite the Creed together, and then I will pronounce a very strong and emphatic discourse of welcome." The history of Christianity runs deep in Syrian culture,
and the variety of Christian churches there is extraordinary. The Greek Orthodox followers of Patriarch Ignace Hakim form the largest single Christian community, but there are also large representations of the Melkite Catholic Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Maronite, Chaldean, and Roman Catholic as well as various small Protestant churches. Still, all these Christian groups form a small minority, dwarfed in size by the Islamic majority. 

Pope John Paul will reach out to the Muslims while he is in Damascus, making an unprecedented visit to the Grand Mosque of the Omayyads: a former Christian basilica that houses relics of St. John the Baptist. Here too the Pope will be careful to avoid rousing anti- Catholic feelings; he will make a quick visit to the tomb containing the relics, then join with the Grand Mufti in a public appearance on the streets outside the mosque.  
Another diplomatic test for the Pope during the Syrian stage of his trip will involve the tense relations among the nations of the Middle East. The Pope will travel to the Golan Heights to offer a prayer for peace in the region, choosing his words carefully to express solidarity for the suffering people of the region without further inflaming Arabic hostility toward Israel. And on this stop, too, the Vatican has made the decision to leave an important Catholic prelate off the list of those accompanying the Pope. Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, the head of the Maronite Catholic community in Syria, will be absent, in deference to the political uproar the Maronite leader created when he harshly criticized Syria for effectively colonizing his native Lebanon. 

The final stop on the Pope’s trip will be an overnight stay in Malta, the Mediterranean island country that has been a Catholic stronghold for centuries. The Church remains strong there; Sunday Mass attendance rates are over 65 percent. And the Pope will arrive just as the bishops of Malta finish preparations for a synod that will begin on Pentecost Sunday. But oddly enough, no one from Malta has ever been beatified. That will change on May 9, when he Pope presides at the beatification of three Maltese Catholic heroes: Maria Adeodata Pisani, a 19th-century Benedictine abbess; Ignatius Falzon, a19th-century catechist; and Father Giorgio Preca, founder of the Society of Christian Doctrine, who was born in 1880 and died in 1962.