Church Life

On the Road to Damascus

Greece, Syria, and Malta. The Pope’s most recent trip among the historic sites of St. Paul. “It is on Jesus’ prayer and not on our own strength that we base the hope that even within history we shall be able to reach full and visible communion with all Christians”


Twenty centuries have passed since that courageous and sensational announcement made by Paul of Tarsus in the heart of classical Greece to the Athenian intellectuals gathered in the Areopagus. At that time, the Apostle of the Gentiles had to deal with those who, hearing about a God who dies and rises from the dead, shrugged their shoulders and went away, saying, “We’ll listen to you some other time.” And now the Pope of Rome, after having spoken from the pulpits and in the Areopagi of the entire world, has tried to wind his way into the hearts of his closest and yet most distant brothers, the Greek Orthodox. The faith in Jesus Christ is the same; the seed sown by Paul has sprouted and borne fruit. But a millennium of fighting, misunderstandings, and mutual hatred has divided and still divides the Latin Christians from the Orthodox of Greece. This is why the last phase of his Jubilee pilgrimage to the sites of salvation, in which the Pontiff followed in the Apostle’s steps, was also the hardest. The atmosphere in Athens was certainly not one of warm welcome. Minority fringes of the Orthodox Church staged street demonstrations and hurled slogans at the pilgrim dressed in white, while most Athenians seemed indifferent. Archbishop Christodoulos had imposed conditions for the visit: no common prayers and no shared meals, and the Pope was forbidden to wear the stole during the ceremony in the Areopagus.

The applause signaling a thaw
When on May 4th John Paul II arrived, tired and worn, at the entrance to the Orthodox Archbishop’s palace, he was welcomed with formal courtesy. Christodoulos’ talk was harsh; he had to take into account the polemics and pressure exerted by those who did not want this visit to take place. The small miracle occurred midway through the Pope’s speech, when Wojtyla, hunched and trembling on his throne, asked the Lord’s forgiveness “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.” The Pope cited “some events of the distant past” which “have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day.… I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East.” Christodoulos, who had remained rigid until that moment, dissolved into spontaneous applause, joined by the Orthodox metropolites also present.
Here in Greece, it is as though the disastrous Fourth Crusade (with its sacrilegious pillage), that mission which had nothing to do with the custody of the Holy Land and which even then was condemned by the Pope, had taken place the day before yesterday and not eight centuries ago. John Paul II knows this. He knows that the wound is still open. And so he made the gesture that is the simplest and truest one for a Christian, humbling himself and acknowledging the mystery of evil in the actions of the raiders, who were Latin Christians and yet despoiled their Orthodox brothers. Thanks to these words, the tone of the difficult visit began to change.
A few hours later, Wojtyla and Christodoulos read, in the Areopagus, a joint declaration in which they recalled the Christian roots of Europe, and the next day, in the Nunciature, the Pope of Rome and the Archbishop of Athens prayed together, reciting the Our Father. During Mass celebrated in the sports arena, John Paul II invited Catholics to proclaim “the Good News to the men and women of our time.” “The Church,” he said, “must be attentive to its cultures and their ways of communicating, without allowing the Gospel message to be altered or its meaning or scope diminished.” And on ecumenism, quoting the letter Novo millennio ineunte, he added, “It is on Jesus’ prayer and not on our own strength that we base the hope that even within history we shall be able to reach full and visible communion with all Christians.”

Syria, refuge of the persecuted
As the crow flies, Syria is not far from Greece. And yet it seems like another world. Here the aged pilgrim was welcomed warmly, not only by the Christian population parceled out into many different rites, but also by Muslims. Damascus is the ancient city outside whose walls Saul was converted, struck down by the God Whom he was persecuting by oppressing His first disciples. Here is the house of Ananias, the first Bishop of Damascus, where St. Paul was baptized. Here is the little church right by the Kassim Gate, built on the site where Paul fled when “his disciples took him by night and let him down from the wall, lowering him in a basket” (Acts
9:25). The Pope disembarked into one of the countries where co-existence between Islam and Christianity has been shown to be possible, in a city where amazing minarets rise high next to ancient Christian churches, where for centuries Chaldean, Armenian, and Assyrian Christians have found refuge. The Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, and Greek Melchite patriarchs all came to greet the Pope and accompanied him throughout his entire visit. It is in Syria, the Pope would explain later, “that the Church of Christ discovered her true catholic character and assumed her universal mission.” At the airport, John Paul II pronounced in Arabic a greeting of peace, a peace that “can only be achieved if there is a new attitude of understanding and respect between the peoples of the region, between the followers of the three Abrahamic religions.” The Pontiff explained that his pilgrimage “is also an ardent prayer of hope: hope that among the peoples of the region, fear will turn to trust and contempt to mutual esteem.”
The news, unfortunately, is not good. While only a year ago, when the Pope made his journey to the Holy Land, a lasting peace seemed just around the corner, today in the land of Jesus the spiral of violence seems unstoppable. The Pope recalled that peace comes about through respect for international legality; he reiterated that no one must be allowed to occupy others’ territory by force, repeated that peoples have the right to self-determination, and expressed the hope that the UN resolutions be enforced. His quick visit and prayer in the semi-destroyed Orthodox church in the ghost city of Quneitra–a symbol of the horror of war and the sufferings which have martyred the Holy Land–was a renewed invitation to mutual forgiveness, an invitation to re-establish the difficult co-existence in the area. “Merciful Father,” prayed John Paul II, on his knees at the entrance to the church, “may all believers find the courage to forgive one another, so that the wounds of the past may be healed and not be a pretext for further suffering in the present.”

The mosque of St. John the Baptist
Too much emphasis has been given to the records set by John Paul II–as though what spurred the Pope on were his desire to outdo himself–and not to his unflagging desire to bear witness. Everyone has talked about “the first time a Pope entered a mosque;” some were scandalized by the fact that a Bishop of Rome went to pray in a Muslim house of worship. In reality, the majestic, richly decorated walls of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus enclose an ancient treasure venerated by Christians for centuries. This is the cenotaph of St. John the Baptist, which rises on the spot where Emperor Theodosius buried the Precursor’s skull, purposely brought here from the Holy Land. The relic, first preserved in the crypt of the Cathedral of Damascus, dedicated to the Baptist, was discovered by workers during construction of the Umayyad mosque in 607. After having the Greek parchment found in the reliquary translated, the Caliph Al-Walid recognized it as the skull of Yahya, a prophet of Islam who announced, with Isa (Jesus), the coming of Mohammed. The Pope, wearing Turkish slippers which made it even harder for him to walk along the long series of antique rugs, reached the marble structure enclosing a great wooden chest inside which the relic is kept. Then he prayed, silently, for a brief moment in front of the tomb of the Baptist. Every stop along his Jubilee pilgrimage, which brought John Paul II first along the traces of Abraham, then of Jesus, and now of St. Paul, has been marked by gestures of friendship toward the Christian brothers of other churches, toward Muslims, toward our “elder brothers” of Israel. The Pope has not missed a chance to speak about peace and has never failed to defend the rights of peoples. But every reading of his Jubilee journeys would be a partial one if it did not start from the attachment which John Paul II has shown toward the historical sites of salvation, toward those stones that speak of a God Who chose to burst into history, toward that series of circumstances and encounters that have brought the Gospel announcement down to us. His attachment is to a history seemingly so fragile, whose course runs also through Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta, where Paul was welcomed with great friendship and humanity before resuming the journey that would bring him to martyrdom in the capital of the Roman Empire.
We read in the Acts of the Apostles that after talking in the Areopagus, after some laughed at Paul’s unsettling words and others shrugged their shoulders and decided to leave, “some attached themselves to him and became believers, among them Dionysius and a woman called Damaris, and others besides.”
Two thousand years later, the Pope is not a giant who claims to guide history; in the total frailty of his old age and his illness, held up and almost bodily carried, he retraces the same roads of the early Christians to repeat the same announcement, conscious that it is Another who guides his steps.

“The immense sacrifice of this journey gives concrete form to Catholic ecumenicity”
Father Giussani sent the following telegram to John Paul II on his return from his most recent apostolic journey:

Your Holiness, we watched on television as you walked into the Areopagus of Athens, just as you entered the mosque of Damascus an unarmed pilgrim to the tomb of St. John the Baptist. We are thus deeply moved at the thought that you are today, for all men, a sign of contradiction and hope: like Jesus who is God-Man, the envoy of the Father.
The immense sacrifice of this journey to the roots of the history of the Church, our mother, gives concrete form to Catholic ecumenicity, which is boundless openness to the truth of everyone and to everything: because every encounter is a serene and certain advancing of the truth who is Christ for the life of every man, as St. Paul declares: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all… I have become all things to all men.”
For each and every one of us, your Person is the most luminous and powerful representation of that witness which is a creation of the Spirit. We pray to Him that He may grant us always to imitate that humanity, Holy Father, which He has already so evidently perfected in Your Holiness.
Milan, May 10, 2001