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The Social Dimension of the Gospel (on the trip to Cyprus and Greece)


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Ramiro Pellitero

Professor at School of Theology

On the verge of his 85th birthday, the Pope made a whirlwind trip, a veritable marathon, to Cyprus and Greece from 2 to 6 December. There he demonstrated the profoundly human, social and, one might say, Mediterranean dimension of the Christian message.

At the same time, the Pope forged closer ties with Greek Christians - in countries that are welcoming more and more Catholic citizens - and encouraged the participation of all in tackling the challenges facing Europe.

Patience, fraternity and welcome

At his meeting with the Catholic faithful of Cyprus (Maronite Cathedral of Our Lady of Graces, 2-XII-2021), Francis expressed his joy at visiting the island, following in the footsteps of the Apostle Barnabas, a son of this people. He praised the work of the Maronite Church - of Lebanese origin - and stressed mercy as a characteristic of the Christian vocation, as well as unity in the diversity of rites.

Drawing on the story of Barnabas, he pointed out two characteristics that the Christian community should have: patience and brotherhood.

Just as the Church in Cyprus has its arms open (welcomes, integrates and accompanies), Francis noted, this is "an important message" also for the Church in the whole of Europe, marked by the crisis of faith. "It is no use being impulsive, it is no use being aggressive, nostalgic or complaining, it is better to move forward reading the signs of the times and also the signs of the crisis. It is necessary to start again and to proclaim the Gospel with patience, to take the Beatitudes in hand, especially to announce them to the new generations".

With reference letter to the father of the prodigal son, always ready to forgive, the Pope added: "This is what we wish to do with God's grace in the synodal pathway : patient prayer, patient listening of a Church docile to God and open to man". A reference letter also to follow the example of the Orthodox tradition, as also emerged in the meeting with the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens, Hieronymus II.

And on fraternity, in an environment where there is a great diversity of sensitivities, rites and traditions, he insisted: "We should not feel diversity as a threat to identity, nor should we be suspicious and worried about each other's spaces. If we fall into this temptation, fear grows, fear breeds mistrust, mistrust leads to suspicion and, sooner or later, leads to war".

It is therefore necessary, alongside "a patient, discerning Church, which never panics, which accompanies and integrates", also "a fraternal Church, which makes room for the other, which discusses, but remains united and grows in the discussion".

These same ideas of patience and welcome were also underlined the same day with the civil authorities. He evoked the image of the pearl that the oyster makes, when, with patience and in the dark, it weaves new substances together with the agent that has wounded it. On the return flight he would speak of forgiveness - as well as praying and working together, and the task of theologians - as ways to advance ecumenism.

A comforting and concrete, generous and joyful advertisement

The following day Francis held a meeting with the Orthodox bishops (cf. meeting with the Holy Synod in their cathedral in Nicosia, 3-XII-2021) which offered a contribution of light and encouragement for ecumenism. Referring to the name Barnabas, which means "son of consolation" or "son of exhortation", the Pope pointed out that the advertisement of faith cannot be generic, but must really reach the people, their experiences and concerns, and for this it is necessary to listen and to know their needs, as is common in the synodality experienced by the Orthodox Churches.

On the same workshop (3-XII-2021) he celebrated Mass at the GSP stadium in Nicosia. In his homily, the Pope urged the faithful to meeting, to search for and follow Jesus. So that it is possible to "bear the wounds together" like the two blind men in the Gospel (cf. Mt 9, 27).

Instead of shutting ourselves up in darkness and melancholy, in the blindness of our hearts because of sin, we are to cry out to Jesus who passes through our lives. And we are to do so, indeed, by sharing our wounds and facing the journey together, coming out of individualism and self-sufficiency, as true brothers and sisters, children of the one heavenly Father. "Healing comes when we bear our wounds together, when we face our problems together, when we listen and talk to each other. And this is the grace of living in community, of understanding the value of being together, of being community". In this way we too can proclaim the Gospel with joy (cf. Mt 9:30-31); for "the joy of the Gospel frees us from the risk of an inward-looking, distant and complaining faith, and introduces us to the dynamism of witness".

Francis still had time that day for an ecumenical prayer with the migrants (in the parish of the Holy Cross, Nicosia, 3-XII-2021), telling them with St Paul: "You are no longer strangers and aliens, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God" (Eph 2:19). Responding to the concerns that had been brought to him, he encouraged them to preserve and cultivate their roots. And at the same time to open themselves confidently to God, in order to overcome the temptations of hatred - their own interests or prejudices or those of group- with the strength of Christian brotherhood. In this way it is possible to realise dreams, to be the leaven of a society where human dignity is respected and where people walk freely and together towards God.

Involving everyone in Europe's challenges

On Saturday, 4 December, Francis arrived in Athens, the capital of Greece, the cradle of democracy and report of Europe. At the presidential palace, he openly acknowledged: "Without Athens and without Greece, Europe and the world would not be what they are: they would be less wise and less happy". "Through here," he added, "have passed the paths of the Gospel that have united East and West, the Holy Places and Europe, Jerusalem and Rome. "Those Gospels which, in order to bring to the world the good news of God the lover of man, were written in Greek, language immortal used by the Word - the Logos - to express itself, the language of human wisdom turned into the voice of divine Wisdom". In his meeting with the Orthodox Archbishop of Athens (4-XII-2021), Hieronymus II, the Pope evoked the great contribution of Greek culture to Christianity at the time of the Fathers and the first ecumenical councils.

Christianity owes much to the Greeks, as does democracy, which has given rise to the European Union. However," the Pope noted with concern at the presidential palace, "in our days we are facing a regression of democracy, not only on the European continent.

He invited to overcome "democratic scepticism", result, among other factors, authoritarianism and populism, consumerism, tiredness and ideological colonisations. He insisted on the need for the participation of all, not only to achieve common objectives, but also because it responds to what we are: "social beings, unrepeatable and at the same time interdependent".

Quoting De Gasperi - one of the builders of Europe - he called for the pursuit of social justice on various fronts (climate change, pandemics, the common market, extreme poverty), amid what seems to be a turbulent sea and "a long and unachievable odyssey", in a clear reference to Homer's tale, reference letter .

He evoked the Iliad, when Achilles says: "He is as hateful to me as the gates of Hades who thinks one thing and says another" (Iliad, IX, 312-313). He continued on core topic of Greek culture and, under the symbol of solidarity of the olive tree, called for care for migrants and refugees in Europe.

With reference letter to the sick, the unborn and the elderly, Francis took the words of Hippocrates' oath, where he pledges to "regulate the tenor of life for the good of the sick", to "abstain from all harm and offence" to others, and to safeguard life at all times, particularly in the womb. He pointed out, in a clear allusion to euthanasia, that the elderly are the sign of the wisdom of a people: "Indeed, life is a right; death is not; it is welcomed, not provided".

Also under the symbol of the olive tree, he expressed his gratitude for the public recognition of the Catholic community and called for closer fraternal ties between Christians.

meeting between Christianity and Greek culture

In order to strengthen the bonds between Christianity and Greek culture, and in the light of St Paul's preaching on the Areopagus in Athens (cf. Acts 17:16-34), the Pope pointed out some fundamental attitudes that should shine through in the Catholic faithful: trust, humility and welcome (cf. meeting with bishops, priests, men and women religious, seminarians and catechists, St Dionysius Cathedral, Athens, 4-XII-2021).

Far from being discouraged and lamenting weariness or difficulties, we must imitate the faith and courage of St. Paul. "The Apostle Paul, whose name refers to littleness, lived in confidence because he took to heart these words of the Gospel, even to the point of teaching them to the Corinthian brethren (cf. 1 Cor 1:25,27).

The apostle did not say to them: 'you are mistaken in everything' or 'now I am teaching you the truth', but he began by welcoming their religious spirit" (cf. Acts 17:22-23). Because he knew that God works in the heart of man, Paul "welcomed the desire for God hidden in the hearts of these people and kindly wanted to pass on to them the wonder of faith. His style was not imposing, but propositional".

On this point, Francis recalled that Benedict XVI advised paying attention to agnostics or atheists, especially because "when we speak of a new evangelisation, these people are perhaps frightened. They do not want to see themselves as the object of mission statement, nor do they want to renounce their freedom of thought and will" (speech to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2009).

Hence the importance of welcome and hospitality with an open heart, to the point of being able to dream and work together, Catholics and Orthodox, other believers, even agnostics, everyone, to cultivate the "mystique" of fraternity (cf. Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, 87).

On Sunday 5 December the Pope visited refugees at the reception and identification centre in Mytilene. He called on the international community and each individual to overcome individualistic selfishness and to stop building walls and barriers. He quoted the words of Elie Wiesel, who survived the Nazi concentration camps: "When human lives are in danger, when human dignity is in danger, national boundaries become irrelevant" (speech acceptance of the award Nobel Peace Prize, 10-XII-1986).

With an expression that has become famous, the Pope added, referring to the Mediterranean Sea: "Let us not allow the mare nostrum to become a desolate mare mortuum, nor let this place of meeting become a theatre of conflict! Let us not allow this 'sea of memories' to become the 'sea of oblivion'. Brothers and sisters, I beseech you: let us stop this shipwreck of civilisation!"

Conversion, hope, courage

In his homily that Sunday (cf. Mass at the Megaron Concert Hall, Athens, 5-XII-2021), Francis took his cue from the preaching of St John the Baptist in the desert to appeal to conversion, a radical attitude that God asks of us all: "To convert is to think beyond, that is, to go beyond the habitual way of thinking, beyond the mental schemes to which we are accustomed. I am thinking of the schemes that reduce everything to our self, to our claim to self-sufficiency. Or those schemes closed by rigidity and fear that paralyse, by the temptation of 'it has always been done like this, why change? [...]. To convert, then, means not to listen to those who corrode hope, to those who repeat that nothing will ever change in life - the usual pessimists; it is to refuse to believe that we are destined to sink in the quicksand of mediocrity; it is not to give in to the inner ghosts that appear above all in moments of test to discourage us and tell us that we cannot, that everything is wrong and that being saints is not for us".

Therefore, he added, along with charity and faith, we must ask for the grace of hope. "For hope revives faith and rekindles charity". This message was also present, in a different language, on his last day at meeting with the young Athenians.

In a speech full of allusions to Greek culture (the oracle of Delphi, the journey of Ulysses, the song of Orpheus, the adventure of Telemachus), Francis spoke to them of beauty and wonder, service and fraternity, courage and sportsmanship (cf. meeting with the young people at St. Dionysius School, Athens, 6-XII-2021).

Amazement, he explained, is both the beginning of Philosophy and a good attitude to open oneself to faith. Amazement at God's love and forgiveness (God always forgives). The adventure of serving with real and not only virtual encounters. This is how we discover and live as "beloved children of God" and discover Christ who comes out to us at meeting in others.

In bidding them farewell, he proposed "the courage to move forward, the courage to take risks, the courage not to stay on the couch. The courage to take risks, to go to meeting with others, never in isolation, always with others. And with this courage, each of you will find yourselves, you will find others and you will find the meaning of life. I wish you this, with the financial aid of God, who loves you all. God loves you, be brave, go forward! Brostà, óli masí! [Forward, all of you together!