By Michaela Koller
PAPHOS, Cyprus, JUNE 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI's first day in Cyprus will be marked by ecumenical dialogue and a walk through ancient Christian history.
The Pope's first appointment after his arrival today at the Paphos International Airport is an ecumenical celebration in the archeological area of the Church of Agia Kyriaki Chrysopolitissa.
From the book of Acts of the Apostles (13: 4-13) we know that St. Paul had his first major mission success in this beach city in the southwest of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. This successful mission of St. Paul marks the beginning of the worldwide spreading of Christianity.
With the conversion of the proconsul Sergius Paulus this spot on the southeastern edge of Mare Nostrum, the territory conquered by Rome, became the first Christian ruled country in history.
The focus of the Pontiff's first major activity will be the St. Paul pillar outside the church of Agia Kyriaki.
In the middle of the sand the pillar rises up, a grayish white marble piece, from the bare ground, amid other ruins of columns. A simple stone panel with a black inscription explains its significance. According to tradition, here in this humble place, tied to this pillar which is not even one meter high, the Apostle of the Nations suffered about 39 lashes in A.D. 47 because he was accused of rioting.
An archaeological discovery made in 1999 may give more of an assurance of the authenticity of the legend, said the historian and journalist Michael Hesemann in an interview with ZENIT.
He described the work of the Italian archaeologist, Filippo Giudice, who discovered in 1999 a fragment of marble with the parts of an inscription, LOY - OSTO, which the experts read as: (PAU) LOY (AP) OSTO (LOY). With paleographic tests, the object was dated as belonging to the first or early second century.
"If this is indeed the case, the Paphos inscription, would be the oldest historical witness to the work of the Apostle of the Gentiles in Cyprus," Hesemann explained to ZENIT, "even the oldest inscription in general that bears his name."
Even if there was no proof about the legend of the Pauline column, the surrounding archaeological park gives evidence of the impact of St. Paul and his companion, Barnabas and John Mark. The memorial stone lies surrounded by the ruins of a medieval Gothic Franciscan church.
On that site the area is dominated by a simple cross-domed church, which is built on the relics of an early Christian basilica. This is the church of Agia Kyriaki, which was handed over by the Orthodox Church of Cyprus to Catholics and Anglicans.
Here we meet a living church: "We are an active community," Father Jim Kennedy said to ZENIT.
The parish priest has been busy with the preparations of the Papal visit. "We still had a few weddings here and also baptisms before the pope comes," says the Catholic priest from England, who spoke on behalf of the pastor, Father John Sansour, resting from a recent stroke.
In this parish ZENIT met Owen Donaghy from Ireland, who is about to carry chairs into the church. The grey-haired gentleman, in his sixties, is actively engaged in the parish, confirming the image of a living community.
About 650 residents of Paphos belong to the Catholic parish here, which is expecting a high attendance in these days. "Every Sunday we count about 1,000 people in the different church services, which we offer in different languages," Donaghy said, describing his community of Germans, Irish, French, Filipinos and other Asians.
Asked about his expectations regarding the impact of the Holy Father's visit and the ecumenical service, he said: "After the visit, I expect a stronger closeness between the different confessions, with Anglicans and Orthodox."
Donaghy acknowledged that the Pontiff is coming with a message of peace, and noted, "We should learn to live together and accept the differences as family members."
Since not all children could visit their father, now the Pope as a father is coming to them, he added.
Donaghy expressed the hope that the Pope might visit the St. Michael's Hospice, a project that was started based on donations and the efforts of community members. The construction could not be completed, but the Irish parishioner noted that the Pontiff will bless the project.
He added, "The hospice will have nine double rooms for patients and will offer free palliative care to all those who need it, without any consideration of nationality or faith."
"It is also to be understood as an outstretched hand to the other denominations, because we share the same belief of the dignity of man from his conception up to his natural death," Donaghy said. "This is one of the common concerns of Pope Benedict XVI and of the Cypriot [Orthodox] Archbishop Chrysostomos II."
By Michaela Koller