VATICAN CITY, MAR. 8, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The Holy See expressed its gratitude to the governing Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church for consenting to the papal pilgrimage to Athens, Greece.
“The decision, which enables the Holy Father to visit the Athens Areopagus, also has ecumenical significance, which corresponds to the Holy Father´s expectations,” Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls explained over Vatican Radio.
The Vatican spokesman said no dates have been set for the trip. “We hope to announce soon the realization of this spiritual pilgrimage of the Pope in St. Paul´s footsteps, which has been his wish,” he said. “A two-stage trip has already been announced: one to Syria and another to Malta. Now a date will have to be found that could be included in this trip, or independent of it.”
Vatican experts have told the Italian press that if the papal pilgrimage to Damascus, Malta and Athens is completed in one, three-stage trip, it could take place from May 5-9.
When he received the news, Archbishop Paul Fouad Tabet, apostolic nuncio in Athens, referred to it as “a historic moment for the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.”
According to Eustathios, Metropolitan of Eparta, the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church decided Wednesday that “it did not want to respond negatively to the wish of the pontificate of Rome, especially because the visit has the character of a pilgrimage.”
Archbishop Tabet sees the decision as a Greek Orthodox option in favor of Christian unity. By “regarding it as a pilgrimage, they have given the visit a profoundly spiritual significance,” he said.
Greek President Costis Stefanopoulos officially invited the Pope to Athens when the two met in January. Orthodox Christians represent 99% of the Greek population. There are only about 50,000 Roman Catholics among Greece´s 10.2 million native-born population.
Some liberal clergymen could see the Pope´s presence as helping heal the estrangement between Catholics and Orthodox Christians. But many Greek Orthodox factions hold strong anti-Vatican views and thus oppose the trip.